How to Handle Difficult Conversations with Customers

Here are four tips to help make uncomfortable customer conversations go more smoothly.

No one likes to have an uncomfortable conversation with customers or clients. Yet, problems can arise over the course of a professional relationship. The way business owners handle these issues can mean the difference between a one time and a repeat customer. Here are four tips to help make those conversations go more smoothly.


  1. Remain Calm

    Often, the difficult conversation can come as the result of tensions flaring between a customer and a service agent or even the owner. Take a step back. Perhaps one of the worst phrases in the popular lexicon is “the customer is always right.”

    Actually, no, often the customer is dead wrong and they want something extra. Unfortunately, if you want to contain this, the responsibility to find a compromise falls to you. Take a deep breath and listen to what the customer is saying they want. Can you make this happen? Even if you can’t, try to find a middle ground that at least diffuses the situation and do so with a smile.

  2. Stick to the Facts

    Mistakes happen – missed shipments, over-charging, sending the wrong item, etc. Most reasonable customers will account for a slight margin of error when dealing with a business. But, what they won’t deal with is confusion when trying to rectify the problem. When a customer comes to you with one of these issues it is important that you gather the facts from them and have a process in place that will clear things up swiftly.

    If you miss a shipment, they don’t want a profound apology or store credits or a tangled maze of forms and tracking numbers. Apologize, and get the shipment out same day. The efficiency of your response will go much further than panic and confusion. Similarly, if you’re dealing with a customer error like missed or bounced payments, sticking to the facts is critical. Ensure that you have a paper trail, and that you’ve made it easy for them to repay you. Creating an adversarial relationship makes it much more likely that you won’t see any of what’s owed to you.

  3. Be Prepared

    The idea behind being prepared is the back-office part of sticking to the facts. No matter who is right or wrong in a given situation, ensure that you already have business processes in place to handle what comes next.

    Draw up operational maps that everyone in your organization can follow around common issues like returns, missed shipments, missed payments, or incorrect deliverables. These maps should be able to guide employees by ensuring that they get all of the appropriate information. It is much easier to remain calm when a disgruntled customer comes in if you know what to do from the beginning.

  4. Follow Up

    As with everything in business the follow up is key. If you’ve made it through a difficult situation with a customer you still have a long way to go in restoring trust. Think about how other businesses interact with you after something happens. If I call my bank over a mistake they made, I know going in they probably won’t fix it at all and even if they do I’ll get customer service survey spam for weeks after. The only reason I keep my business there is that my hands are tied on location. This is a no-win for everyone.

    If you’ve resolved the issue, follow up a week or so later with a thank you. It can be small, say 10% off their next transaction but it goes a long way into making them want to return. So much of business today is faceless; you can give yourself a real advantage by bringing back real customer service. On the back-end follow up internally and go over lessons learned. Look at what was missed and why, and try to find ways to avoid repeating those mistakes.


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