02 May 2014

Dealing with Difficult People

02 May 2014

stress personality and effects on staff turnoverHow many times do you leave work feeling completely screwed up inside, stressed and distracted because of someone you’ve had to deal with during the day? It may be a co-worker, customer, boss or manager but, you swear blind, if you didn’t have to be so “professional” you would have punched them in the gob. The stress simmers inside you like food poisoning and you carry it away to the gym, your next appointment or worse, home to your loved ones.

If you’re in Customer Services you may deal with difficult people several times a day and there are only so many times you can be polite. At some point you’ve got to walk away or you will explode. How can we deal with these people in a way that allows us to keep our cool offering good customer service and then finish our working day with a smile on our face?

Here’s some tips to get you started:

 Tip 1) It’s not about you

When you answer the phone for a company, in the customer’s eyes you are not you, even if the customer has met you personally and knows your name. You are ambassador for your company and represent every aspect of it. The products, every staff member, the brand, the reputation which can vary from one perspective to the next… everything.

When they say to you “your product is shit”, “your company is shit” or even, as I have experienced in various Customer Services roles, “you are shit”; you have to remember they are speaking to the company.

What is a company? It’s nothing but a legal entity. A company is just an organisation made up concepts, products, buildings, staff and offered services. It has no heart, mind or conscience of it’s own. The company may even be the memory of an experience that happened 30 years ago to this particular customer so, you have no idea how they came to their opinion of what exactly you are representing. They probably couldn’t put it into words even if you asked them so, for now, DON’T ASSUME.

Set aside the emotion of the criticism and focus on the problem that needs to be solved. For me, I wouldn’t even waste time being offended. Get it solved and move on.

Tip 2) It is about you

Yes, you have to admit you are only human and there will be times when you mess up. We all make mistakes. When we are caught out, often the first instinct is to protect ourselves like a kid caught with their hand in the candy jar.

You have no idea how surprising it can be to a customer who is yelling that you made a mistake and you immediately agree with them. It completely takes the wind out of their stormy sails. They may be so taken aback that they give up on the continuation of being a difficult customer with things like “how could you do that?” “how dare you do that?” “look at all the inconvenience you’ve caused me”.

The reason none of these continuing comments will work is because you’ve admitted it, taken control of the conversation and already moved toward making amends. There is no time on these calls to feel ashamed and guilty allowing them to bash you further into the ground. If you refuse to feel ashamed and turn their attention to finding a solution you will save everybody’s time.

NB – Keep in mind that every second they spend in an angry, complaining mood is doing damage to their nervous system and their physical wellbeing. You are doing them a favour by moving quickly on to resolving the problem.

Tip 3) Seeing what’s really going on

Generally, anyone who throws mud at you, be it in a passive-aggressive way or in a downright ugly O.T.T. way has got stuff going on and chances are it’s got nothing to do with you or your company.

Getting them to open up about it takes a fair bit of skill and if you don’t have time or can’t be bothered hearing the whole sob story, making up a quick story in your mind of what’s really going on can allow you to treat them more compassionately.

This may sound totally weird. As I said at the beginning, normal instincts would be to punch them but, in fact, what they need is the opposite.

Let’s take an example. I’ve done work in the past for a membership program where members have their material released to them on the first day of each month. One time I went in to check the questions and comments in the forum. It was about 10am Sydney Australia time on the first of the month so the material had only been live for a short few hours.

Already there were 5 comments from one customer who had pointed out an era, had replied to the two other members who had asked about the era agreeing with them, trying to stir them up, then posting to the whole forum about what an appalling service this company offered and that they were completely disappointed.

If I reacted in a defensive way I might have felt deeply wounded, not only by the public humiliation from this customer but the fact they were trying to stir up anger in others. I could then hold onto that anger for DAYS, spreading poison and hatred to that customer in my mind, gritting my teeth as I dealt with them and doubting myself and the quality of my company work in the future.


This is a superb way to give yourself professional burnout, increase your stress which will increase your chances of mistakes in the future. Plus, the nasty vibe I am sending this customer will be heard by them, even if I never say a word.

Each of us picks up on the vibes of others, even if they’re on the other side of the world, so you can bet they will be back next month drooling over how they can pick another hole in your service and make you look bad.

How else can we handle this? First of all, duck the flying shit. (Yes, I know, not very good corporate language but these customers are not afraid to use a swearword or two so I’ll allow a few for myself.)

Next, use a bit of imagination in your story about this customer again. If they are already complaining in the morning, that means they probably woke up in a foul mood. What might have happened yesterday or last night? Car broke down, argument with their partner, no partner = not getting laid = tension they can’t explain. Hmm, that’s a possibility. Feeling insecure about their job. Got one of those horrible bosses putting the pressure on them. Constantly comparing themselves with more successful people which makes them feel untalented and insignificant. Yep, that’s a good reason to try and offload their anger onto someone else pointing out mistakes.

You see what I’m doing? Providing I don’t do this with revenge on my mind, but rather with compassion in my heart, I can end up feeling sorry for this poor mite and how I choose to deal with them will be completely different from the anger I originally felt.

There are many types of difficult customers you have to deal with each in their own way. You can be under even more pressure if you’re sharing an office with horrible bosses or bullying co-workers. Taking just a few seconds to look at or even imagine what might be going on for them can offload those negative feelings and allow you to deal with them in a way which benefits you both.

Want Kitegirl to teach you all her secrets to dealing with difficult people? Book a day’s training course for your staff with her in your office or an individual session from any country with Skype or FaceTime.

Short on budget for training? Try Kitegirl’s online self paced Stress Management Course which includes info on customer service skills and dealing with difficult people.

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