Customer Service

5 strategies for handling challenging customer interactions

Yaakov Karda

Updated: Sep 13, 2019 · 7 min read

Toolkit for download in this article

providing great customer service

Did you know that the best way to engage customers and gain their loyalty is actually not through clever marketing? Answering a customer’s question or helping them with a problem is actually one of the best ways to gain the attention of your customer and subsequently build their trust and loyalty. That being said, it’s also one of the easiest ways to lose them: 65% of consumers said the quality of customer service is a factor when deciding where to make their purchase.

If a customer reaches out to your team and you offer a poor experience, you’ll lose them just as quickly as you thought you’d gained them. Poor customer service can include: prioritizing company “policies” over the experience of the customer, making it difficult for them to return or exchange items they purchased with you, mismanaging or ignoring customer insights, or keeping them waiting for too long. Beyond these, there are any number of issues that could affect a customer’s experience, including things that are entirely out of your company’s hands. In this blog post, we’ll explore the different things that you can do to improve their poor experience, whether it started with you or not.

Build rapport

Nobody wants to be treated like just another dollar in the bank. In fact, 63% of consumers expect personalization as a standard of service and think that being recognized as an individual is one of the best things a company can do to earn their loyalty. When a customer first reaches out, especially if they are already frustrated, follow these three steps.

Acknowledge the issue that they are experiencing

  • Align with them and let them know that you understand where they’re coming from.
  • Assure them that you are taking steps to get the issue resolved.

If you take these steps, you’ve talked the customer down from their ledge and let them know that you are both on the same side. From there, it’s just a matter of sussing out the issue, and resolving it. Even by just recognizing the customer’s humanity and the validity of their frustration, you’ve already won half the battle towards cooling them off.

Get to the bottom of it

Have you ever had an argument with a loved one immediately before walking out the door to start your day? It feels like a black cloud is hovering over you, and every little thing can start to get under your skin. Maybe your barista makes your regular coffee wrong, and then your coworker passes off some of their work to you and then, the final straw, the person ringing you out for your lunch drops your salad and it falls onto the floor. You’re running late and don’t have time to make another one, so all of the slowly boiling anger explodes.

Now imagine your company on the other side of it. Your marketing and customer success people are the man at the cash register, minding their own business until someone comes along and explodes all over them for something that, largely, isn’t their fault. It’s your job to figure out why.

Instead of writing your customers off as unreasonable, try to understand where they are coming from and what the crux of their issue really is. Maybe they are upset because they’re having a hard time at home, maybe they’re saying they’re upset about your pricing, but actually they’re upset because they only have prepaid cards to pay with due to financial problems, and your company doesn’t accept them. Never assume anything, and always start every charged interaction by figuring out what is at the bottom of it.


Saying sorry can be one of the most valuable things you can do for your customers, even above offering them money (in some cases). In fact, only 37% of upset customers were satisfied when offered compensation in return for having an issue. However, if the business apologized on top of the credit, satisfaction increased to 74%. We all know, though, how hard apologizing can be. Worse still is how it feels to be on the end of an insincere apology.

Instead of trying to blame it on a customer’s misunderstanding, be honest about where the issue came from—ownership is incredibly important. For example:

  • I’m sorry that it took us so long to get back to you.
  • I’m sorry that I gave you the wrong information about how much this would cost.
  • I apologize that my dog peed on your lawn.
  • You’re right. I did send you the wrong replacement part. I’m sorry.

All of these include the apology as well as an explanation (and ownership) about what the apology is for.

Act like your family is watching

Humans (and chimps, funnily) are so impacted by being observed that even hanging posters that have eyes featured on them is enough to clean up their behavior. A study done at Newcastle University determined that, with the feeling of being watched, most students were compelled to do less littering and problematic behavior on campus. It’s the same for me: if I imagine that my mom is watching, I’m going to behave with normalcy and good behavior.

So, when a particularly trying customer comes through as a comment on your blog, imagine that a loved one is watching you. Instead of rolling your eyes or using charged and aggressive language, maybe you take a step back and try to understand where they are coming from. Consider how you would behave if this was a person out in public while you were with your family—you wouldn’t be discourteous if this was a stranger out on the street, why do anything different with someone who is paying you to use your product?

Don’t take it personally

The person who is ranting and raving on the other end of your email, phone call, chat, or blog comment does not know anything about you other than the fact that you are a representative of your company. They aren’t mad at you, specifically, as much as they are mad at your product, your policies, or the way that your company approaches offering help. It’s not like they are, for instance, yelling at you about an accident your dog had on their lawn or something that you personally did.

Given that, you shouldn’t take it as such. If they aren’t mad at you for something you personally did, you shouldn’t take it as a personal attack. Instead, distance yourself from it slightly—that can help you gain a deeper perspective and tackle the issue in pieces, rather than becoming overwhelmed and angry.


Many times a customer is frustrated by something that wasn’t your company’s fault. They might be interacting with you as a way to release the tension they are feeling about something else that happened in their day, or may have had a number of issues with your product that have finally bubbled up to this one final frustration.

Whether or not your company is at fault, take the time to break down where the issue is coming from, and what you can do on your end to resolve it. From there, if needed, offer a genuine apology and let them know that you understand where they are coming from and are taking the necessary steps to resolve the problem.

Don’t take any issues with your customers personally—they did not individually seek you out, nor do they have any concept for who you are outside of working for your company. In the event that you do grow frustrated with them, try to behave in a way that you would want your family to see. Being the best version of yourself is an excellent way to navigate out of a poor situation with both a happy customer and your self-respect intact.

Bio: Yaakov Karda is the co-founder of and a slow coffee enthusiast. When not brewing or working on the startup, he helps his wife with their art projects or explores Tel-Aviv on a bicycle. Check out Chatra’s latest books on customer loyalty and customer support.

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