Working with Tough Customers

Note from the team: We’re going to cover the topic of “Working with Tough Customers” this month on the blog. There will be some really great tips to work through, but the one thing I’d really like for you to look for when you’re reading and listening this month is how you can leverage the information. If there’s something that you’d like to add, please also feel free to discuss on the Facebook page or comment on one of the LinkedIn posts you see. As always, thanks for reading!


I’m sure many people this month will cover empathy and working through problems. What I’ll focus on is very simple: How managers can help their teams avoid escalations.

The first step to avoiding escalations starts at the management and above levels. You need to give your employees autonomy and trust. Without this, escalations will run rampant throughout your success team. If people don’t have the ability to make things right without approval from several levels in a chain of command, you’re not setting your team up properly.

Employees shouldn’t be looking to give away anything, but if giving a refund is the right thing to do, then you need to give people a chance to make things right. Most companies that I’ve worked with give a dollar amount before they need approval. If this is something you’re not working with and you’re asking for every refund to be run up the management ladder, stop reading here and go fix your system. It’s broken.

When employees have a chance to make decisions for themselves and the customer, there’s a significant chance that they’re able to solve a customer’s problem on the first call.

Autonomy comes with responsibility, though. So if you’re a person working directly with customers, you need to understand that you’re there to make the customer successful and happy and solve their problem, but you’re also there to help your organization retain that business. You can do both at the same time without sacrificing your genuine thought process about the person on the other end of the phone.

Managers should also be coaching people through procedures and practices. Let people see behind the curtain into how you’re handling someone who is less than happy. I asked my first boss if I could watch them work with someone else’s escalations and I learned so much just by watching them work. If you have someone that’s still passing along too many, have them sit on every customer escalation interaction you have.

Role-playing is one of the best tools a manager has in their arsenal. While many employees will try and act “too cool” for role-playing, it’s really important to be honest about why you’re exercising in this way. You have a chance to teach people through tough conversations with zero risk of upsetting a customer. Be direct, specific, and think of scenarios that happen often before running through these scenarios. Thoughtful exercises are impactful and give people a chance to also show you their thought process and will give you a clear glimpse into any breakdowns. Role-playing has also helped others see how some of your top performers are working through things.

Autonomy, coaching, and role-playing are fantastic tools to help you better prepare your team to work with people that aren’t happy with the goal of turning those attitudes around.

Other articles this month will cover some tactical steps for the one-to-one contact, so be sure to check back!


Joe Huber is one of the co-founders of the Chicago Customer Success Podcast. He is currently a Customer Community Strategist with Sprout Social.

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