In business school, I took a class called “Leadership and Influence.” In this class, we watched a video of Arthur Blank, one of the founders of Home Depot, briefing his employees. Blank was on the floor of a Home Depot store, giving a pep talk to his employees in their orange aprons. It was an inspiring speech on customer service, and he had a quote that’s always stuck with me. I’ll paraphrase:

It’s easy to provide good customer service to good customers. Anyone can do that. But if we can provide good customer service to difficult customers — to the real a-holes — then everything else becomes easier by comparison.

Only he didn’t say “a-holes.”

Of all the terrific advice I received in business school, I remember this one for several reasons. First, it was the only time in business school that I ever heard anyone swear in a classroom setting. Second, it struck me as a powerful truth: if we can satisfy the most difficult customers, everyone else will be easy by comparison.

Note this is not the same as the old clich√©, “The customer is always right.” That implies a bend-over-backward, make-your-customer-happy-at-all-costs approach that often is not in the best interest of your customer. I’m sure that Home Depot has no shortage of customers who want to do electrical work on live outlets, or build structures that will immediately collapse. The customer is not always right.

At our content marketing company, we sometimes talk to customers who are absolutely convinced about some ill-advised strategy: whether it’s a piece of SEO advice they received in 2004, or something they read in a book from a guy who wrote a thing. In these cases, we try to gently question the surrounding beliefs, then share our experience, philosophy, and approach. It’s a give-and-take. The customer is not always right. (Then again, neither are we.)

However, if we approach our most difficult customers with courtesy, respect, and a problem-solving attitude, we can grow stronger and better in the process. In my experience, this is one of the most difficult skills to master in business, and here’s why.

The Three Natural Responses

Difficult customers come at you head-on. They scream at you. They blame you. They write scathing emails. Frequently, it’s not even your fault — they’re just having a bad day, or they have poor social skills, or they’re over their heads and don’t know what else to do.

The natural human reaction in these situations is to become defensive. “This isn’t my fault,” we immediately think, even if it is. “Is this person mentally unbalanced?” we ask ourselves, even if we are, too. “Why did we take on this customer?” we continue, even though we very much wanted that customer a few weeks ago. What most of us do is then is either:

  • Defend our work;
  • Tell the customer why se is wrong;
  • Weep softly.

The trick is to “short-circuit” these usual human responses, and choose a more efficient way of getting everyone what they want. Here are some battle-tested alternatives to each of these responses.

Defending Their Feelings vs. Defending Your Work

Defending our work is rarely effective, because the customer is already upset. Even if hir emotional outburst is not justified, reason will not work. It is far better to repeat back to the customer hir complaint: “Let me recap: you’re upset because our cruise ship struck an oil tanker and partially capsized,” or “I understand, and I would also be upset if my new scarf arrived half-eaten by moths.”

This at least legitimizes the customer’s complaint. Business happens between people, and people have emotions. Clearly, the emotions are running high, so your customer needs to feel heard. When you repeat the complaint back to the customer, you make the customer feel heard. Even better if you can sympathize with the complaint (“I understand why you’d feel that way,” or “You’re absolutely right”).

You can later explain why this mistake happened, or what you were thinking at the time. But first, you have to swallow your pride and grant the customer the right to feel angry. Defend the customer’s feelings, not yourself. (Bonus: this works great for relationships, too.)

Solving the Problem vs. Explaining It

Telling customers why they are wrong does not work, because humans strive for mental consistency. Research shows that once we have publicly taken a position on an issue, we do not want to change that position, for fear of looking weak or inconsistent. This is where the term “saving face” comes from: when you give people one “face” (i.e., opinion), you do not want to present a second “face.”

The art of allowing customers to save face is to take an attitude of problem-solving: “So, how are we going to make this right for you?” This takes focus off the problem, and onto the solution. Negotiating the solution can be fun, like a puzzle. Treat it like an interesting business challenge: how do we get everyone happy at the end of the day? Think on your feet, and come up with as many solutions as you can.

Some customers do not want a solution-oriented approach, and instead want to complain. Sometimes you just have to give them a 100% refund. Sometimes you have to take a bath. Sometimes they’re still mad, even after you bend over backward. Everybody runs into the inconsolable customer, even the companies with the highest customer satisfaction rates in the world. You cannot resent this; it is part of doing business.

At Media Shower, we used to have a $2.00 product. (Don’t ask.) We had a customer order a $2.00 product, and we delivered a terrific product, on time, and as ordered. The customer asked for a refund of his $2.00. Somehow that was the most difficult $2.00 that I ever had to refund. It’s hard to let those customers go without resentment, which is why it requires practice.

Solve the problem, then let it go.

Mental Strength vs. Weeping Softly

It’s incredibly difficult not to get caught in the mental loop of obsessing over difficult customers: what they said, what we said, what we did, what they said we did, what we said we’d do, what they said we said we’d do, etc. This spills over into complaining about customers to your co-workers, which is rarely productive for anyone, unless you are trying to find the solution.

Difficult customers can drain the energy from you. They can suck motivation out of doing great work for all your good customers. My personal “mind hack” is to look at difficult customers from a personal development perspective: I’ll do my best to make them happy. Even if they’re not, I will at least grow in the process. I will become stronger and more resilient in the end.

We had a customer who canceled her subscription, but not before berating our team on an incredibly difficult conference call. We thanked her, then had an immediate debrief meeting after the call. The natural response was to say, “Well, she was crazy” (and in fact, she might have actually been crazy), but instead we asked, “What can we learn from this? Where did our communication or process go wrong?”

From that meeting, we were able to identify three or four solid improvements to our on-boarding process that we now use in our kickoff call for all new customers. As writer Richard Bach said, “Every problem is waiting for you with a gift in its hands.” To unwrap the gift, you have to successfully manage the problem.

Difficult customers can be like strength training. Difficult customers exercise our muscles of service, selling, and providing solutions. When we approach them in this spirit — like our personal trainers of character —¬† they make us better.

Instead of resisting difficult customers, instead of obsessing over their difficultness (yes, that’s a word), try to fill their needs instead. Welcome them.

Sir John Hargrave is the CEO of
Media Shower and author of the upcoming book Mind Hacking. This post is free to distribute under CC 4.0: if you like it, please share it.