5 Ideas For Dealing with
Difficult Customers

A Personal Assistant should have adequate skills and ideas for dealing with difficult people. Understanding that when dealing with an upset customer, you must first deal with their feelings and then deal with the problem, is key to good customer service.

Upset customers are liable to have strong feelings when your product or service lets them down. They will invariably want to "dump" their negative feelings on you. In the first instance, don't spend all your time concentrating on solving the problem, focus on soothing the customer's feelings. Here are 5 action ideas to deal with difficult people that will help you to focus on their emotional needs.

1. Don't let them get to you - Stay out of it emotionally and concentrate on listening non-defensively and actively. Customers may make disparaging and emotional remarks but avoid rising to the bait.

2. Listen - listen - listen - Look and sound as though you are listening. The customer wants to know that you care and that you are interested in their problem. A good strategy is to paraphrase what they say by repeating it to ensure that you have understood the details correctly. For example, say something like "Okay Mr Smith, so this happened on the 26th April at the London Branch."

3. Stop saying sorry - Sorry is an overused word, everyone says it when something goes wrong, so it has lost its value. How often have you heard "Sorry about that, give me the details and I'll sort it out for you". It's far better to say "I apologise for .....". And if you really need to use the sorry word, make sure to include it as part of a full sentence, such as "I'm sorry you haven't received the information as promised, Mr Smith". (It's also good practise to use the customer's name in a difficult situation.)

4. Empathize - When looking for ideas to deal with difficult people, use empathy. It's an effective way to deal with the customers feelings. Empathy isn't about agreeing; it's about acceptance of what the customer is saying and feeling. The message you want to relay is "I understand how you feel". Obviously this has to be a genuine response. The customer will know if you are being insincere, and will feel patronised. Examples of empathetic responses include "I can understand that you're angry". "I see what you mean."

5. Build Rapport - It's useful to include an empathetic response by including yourself in the picture. Put yourself in the customer's shoes by saying "I can understand how you feel, I don't like it when I'm kept waiting either". This helps to build rapport.

Employing these 5 strategies should help to diffuse the customer's anger, but even if it doesn't, persevere, don't be put off. Continue empathising and tell the customer what you intend to do about the situation. Say "I will report this to the manager", and "I will do my best to ensure it does not happen again".



'Difficult people' - we have all been exasperated by them. Some of us have to contend with a difficult person at work: perhaps it's a colleague. In which case, developing an effective strategy for engaging them is essential. Difficult people seem to make a mountain out of a molehill. They are adept at turning a simple conversation into an argument or a fight. You have to rehearse your lines before approaching them and hope for the best. You may even find that, over time, you permanently tune them out so that they have to try even harder to get you to listen and actually hear them. 


The difficult person's perception of the situation is an important factor but their motivation for behaving that way is key. What motivates their behaviour? One possible reason is resentment. The difficult person may perceive your attempts to reason with them as a lack of respect for their opinions. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle because people tend to limit their interactions with difficult people. 


Difficult people can either be categorised as 'chronically difficult' or 'acutely difficult'. Most people are short-tempered, irritated, and acutely difficult with others from time to time; however, chronically difficult people often have strongly negative beliefs about people in general and generally don't trust others. This comes across in their interactions. At the core of this negativity is low self-esteem. 


Low self-esteem also drives the cycle of negative behaviour. Rejection of their point of view is interpreted as rejection of self. This in turn fuels lack of trust and generally sabotages the difficult person's interactions and relationships.  


To take control of your interactions with a difficult person, it is essential that you first change your own behaviour. Start by refusing to take their negative comments seriously. Behave in an unexpectedly positive way, using upbeat words and phrases. Use humour to skilfully deflect their negative comments and defuse their attempts at starting an argument. Ignore insecure behaviour and sarcasm, and focus on the productive aspects of their conversations. This is particularly important if you have to work with the difficult person and your productivity depends on communicating with them. 

Finally, there are people out there who will have it in for you, no matter what you do. If that is the case and it's a work colleague that is being difficult, it is particularly important to take control to avoid being dragged into a disciplinary hearing. 

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