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Mastering difficult conversations and complaints from difficult clients.

How to Talk to Difficult Clients and Handle Complaints

Part 3 of the Entrepreneur’s Guide to Good Communication

Every business has its share of difficult clients. There’s no avoiding it, because there’s no way to make everyone happy. Even the biggest, most customer-friendly companies deal with dissatisfied customers. Complaints pop up in your emails, in your chat, in your social media and, worst of all, in your reviews.

While there’s no exact recipe to handling complaints and difficult clients, there are a few techniques you can use to regain your customers’ trust and build a brand that says “we care”.

1. Take a deep breath.

So, you’ve received a complaint. The customer is clearly wrong, or insane, or they’re taking their personal frustrations out on you. Whatever it is, it’s irrelevant, because right now you’re taking a deep breath and keeping your cool.

The worst thing you can do when faced with a difficult client is to reply with the same level of hot-headedness they are addressing you with. It may feel justified (and even a little satisfying), but it certainly won’t solve anything. On the contrary, it will make things worse. The conversation will most likely spiral out of control, and a bad review will be the least of your problems.

Stay calm. Remember that your goal is not to show the client how wrong they are, but to deescalate the situation, and possibly turn things around. The next few steps will show you how to do that.

2. Be direct and truthful.

When a customer contacts you to complain, they’re not in the mood for chit-chat. They’re probably quite pissed. So, avoid long stories, overexplaining, talking around the subject, deflecting, or (Heaven forbid) start cracking jokes. Instead, stay focused on the message, and get the situation resolved as fast as possible, for both your sakes.

And while we’re on the subject of fast replies, the speed with which you handle complaints contributes to the successful resolution of the problem. Fast replies are a signal that you’re present, open to help, and care about your customers’ satisfaction.

However, it’s ok to admit when you don’t know the answer to something, and inform the client that you’re taking a little time to look into it, as long as you’re actually looking into it. Don’t close your eyes and hope the problem goes away. Ask your colleagues, do a little digging, come up with a solution to the predicament.

3. Master the apology.

This technique has o do a lot with honesty. Even the most difficult clients will appreciate a no-baloney reaction on your part. If you’ve made a mistake, own up to it, and offer to fix it. If you haven’t made a mistake, explain how things went down, show empathy and still offer to fix “it”.

The trickiest part about apologies is keeping them from getting too long or too technical. Instead of showering the dissatisfied client with a detailed description of why exactly they couldn’t log in, or use your service (or whatever else they’re complaining about), focus on what can be done to remedy the situation: apologize, explain the solution/plan, tell then you’ll be in touch when it’s fixed, and follow up. Never forget to FOLLOW UP!  

Most customers will forgive you if you own your mistakes. After all, everyone makes them.

4. Ask why.

No matter how “perfect” your product is, people will always find reasons to complain about it. You can’t make everyone happy. The sooner you accept that, the easier and more productive your life will be.

Nevertheless, you should always try to find out why customers are complaining about different issues, more so when they’re being vague about it. So, when they say that “the new landing page design looks ok, but it’s still not what they had in mind” ask them to elaborate. Find out why they’re dissatisfied.

What for? At least 2 reasons:

A. They’re going to feel heard. They’ll walk away satisfied that someone cares about their opinion.

B. You may get valuable information about how people are interacting with your product/services, what their expectations are, where your weak points are, etc. Learn and perfect.

5. Say “thank you”.

When a customer brings a problem to your attention, you hate them a little, but you should still say thank you. The problems that they complain about are obviously things that you should fix – think of it as free quality control.

The reasons why the “thank you” matters are the same as above: building trust by helping your dissatisfied clients feel heard, and getting good intel about your product/service. In some cases, you could even send these difficult clients a thank you gift or note for being so nitpicking, especially if their insight proves valuable to your product development.

6. Take steps to solve the problem.

None of the techniques above mean anything if you don’t actually find a solution to the complaint. If what they’re asking for is impossible, offer them alternatives, even if it means pointing them towards the competition.

Even the most difficult clients will most likely appreciate your openness, and trust you more (if not for their current purchase/booking, then definitely for future ones). You’ll be the stand-up business who pointed them in the right direction and helped them solve their problem (more so than the competitor who actually solved their problem by making the sale).

7. Stand your ground.

Finally, we have to talk about the extreme cases of difficult clients. When you’ve tried owning your mistakes, apologizing, explaining, offering solutions/alternatives, and they’re still not backing down, it’s tempting to lose it, and start mirroring their aggressive tone. Don’t!

Keep your cool, and stand your ground.

If they want to cancel their account and give you the worst review in history, let them do so. It should be clear by now that there’s nothing you can do to change their minds. Even worse, if you start haggling, you make sure they never return, and give them more ammunition to attack you with online. Cut them loose.

One last thing: never tolerate abuse. If the customer starts using ugly language, or become overly aggressive, stand firm and let them know outright how unacceptable it is. Either they calm down so you can have a conversation, or… sorry, goodbye.

Hope this quick list of conversation tips can help you navigate complaints and turn them around in your favor. Don’t get discouraged if some people are just impossible to talk to. Stay calm and give it your best shot. That’s what most customers expect from you anyway.

This article is part of the Entrepreneur’s Guide to Good Business Communication, a collection of useful communication tips for the struggling entrepreneur. You’ll also find articles on topics such as getting customers to review your business online, and driving engaging conversations with clients.

The NerdPilots team is ready to answer any business, web/software development or marketing questions. We also look forward to reading more of your success/failure stories, so share them with us in the comments. Experience always has a thing or two to teach us all.

Written by

Writer and online content strategist. Loves stories, technology and entrepreneurship. Wants to help you leverage online tools and best practices to grow your business. Ask her questions! She’ll get you answers.

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