Three Tips for Handling Awkward Customer Situations

A while back, I was at The Old Spaghetti Factory when a lady at the next table ordered broiled fish, which as you might guess, judging by the name of the restaurant, was not on the menu. She made it clear that she hated spaghetti and preferred seafood.AwkwardCustomer2.jpg

I waited to see how the waiter would handle it. I expected him to say, "If you wanted seafood, why did you come to a spaghetti restaurant?" but instead he apologized that she was disappointed in their limited menu and brought her broiled cod. I couldn't believe it.

Later, when I talked to the waiter he said, "They keep everything in the freezer for folks like that."

That waiter's amazing customers service stuck with me—along with lingering curiosity about what restaurants keep in their freezers—and made me realize some difficult customers, if handled correctly, are opportunities.

Customers are Human

We've all heard, "The customer is always right." But they should change that to "The customer is always human." Customers are going to be who they are and say what they want. You have no control over them, but you do have control over your response.  

Here are three quick tips in dealing with uncomfortable customer service moments:

  • Listen. Everyone wants to be heard, and especially difficult customers. Listen carefully and when they have gotten it off their chest, offer a solution.
  • Act. Show them you care by taking swift action to solve the problem.
  • Exceed expectations when possible.  If you know the types of complaints you're likely to encounter, be ready with an amazing solution (like a freezer full of fish).

Practice Your Response

Some of us are better at thinking on our feet than others. And because we’re not superhuman, some people can get under our skin. If someone irritates you, take a deep breath, apologize, and don’t make matters worse . . . like some of these answers below.

This is not what I ordered?

Bad: Yes it is. I was standing right there when you ordered it. 

Good: What was it you ordered? Let me get the right one. Thank you for your patience.

I don’t like this and I’m going to return it.

Bad: Whatever.

Good: I’m sorry you weren't happy with it. Can I help you find a similar item?

The sign said those were on sale.

Bad: There can't be a sign over there. We’ve never had those on sale.

Good: I'm sorry. That was our oversight. If that sign is up, I'll be happy to honor the sale for you.

Luckily, there are videos like What Do You Say? that let you practice your responses instead of learning them on the job. And practicing can actually be quite a bit of fun.

In the end, go easy on the customer. You never know when you'll be that difficult customer, sitting in The Old Spaghetti Factory asking for fish.
Diane Mettler has been a manager for nearly 20 years. She's also a freelance writer and editor—with hundreds of her articles published in a variety of magazines—and teaches writing at the University of Washington.