Tips for Tough Customer Situations

When I originally proposed the topic of “Working with tough customers” this month, I missed a crucial clarification. It’s true that there are perpetually difficult people but the reality is that most customers are only tough for specific intervals, usually when something has gone wrong. If I had a do-over, the topic would be “Handling tough customer situations”. This small change highlights the central theme of this post: the difference between a seemingly tough customer and a raving fan is one solution away.

In the b2c world, those empowered to own the relationship with vendors are mostly rational and goal-oriented. Their company signed up with yours to solve a pain and they’re going to be happy if you’re providing relief from that pain. When that breaks down, either through technology malfunctions or missed goals, emotion often comes into play. The reason why is extremely simple. When a customer can’t get what they need from your tool, it impacts their ability to perform their job and threatens their livelihood. With that understanding, here are some tips for handling situations where emotions are understandably running high:

  • Customers don’t have unlimited time to troubleshoot. When you can’t replicate a product failure it’s necessary to involve the customer but make sure to be respectful of their time. The level of frustration they feel will only increase if you aren’t direct and clear with exactly what is needed from them to proceed.
  • Not everything has to be solved on the first call but your follow-up must be timely and valuable. Making somebody wait a day only to receive unhelpful information is the worst experience you can provide. If something requires time to investigate, set an exact time you’ll reach back out and stick to it, even if there are no concrete updates. The lack of progress is still valuable information for those scrambling to operate without your solution..
  • Understand what method of communication is preferred. For example, I usually prefer email follow-ups when problems arise with vendors. It’s much faster for me to read an email update and reply in between meetings than find time to connect over the phone. Others might prefer a different way of reaching back out to them.
  • Reaching out to you was probably a last resort. People will usually try and solve their problem without contacting you, so believe them when they explain they’ve already done a basic level of investigation.
  • Focus on the fix. When things do escalate, attempt to remove emotion by centering the conversation around finding a solution. Don’t be afraid to push off the conversation about making a customer whole again for a later time.

With the above tips, you can take control of tough customer interactions and steer the relationship back towards the positive. You’ll be amazed at how customers once considered difficult will change their outlook towards your company after well orchestrated solutions.


Scott Berry is one of the co-founders of the Chicago Customer Success Podcast. He is currently the Director of Customer Success at VS Networks.

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