Everything You Need to Know About Dealing with Difficult Clients

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Whether you are a freelancer or run your own company, we have all dealt with difficult customers. It can be an arduous undertaking to deal with the idiosyncrasies of different clients, but it is a must for any business owner or designer to properly handle difficult customer interactions. The consequence of handling a customer incorrectly will not only cost you money but will also create the possibility of bad word-of-mouth, which can affect future sales and money in your pocket.

If you don’t believe us, just check out our post about the book “Thank You Economy“. The in-depth review tells you about the importance of guiding your clients through the design process and ensuring that their needs are met from the beginning to the end. Brushing off a clients’ issue could lead to a nasty review on a social media site like Facebook or Twitter, which could in turn could deter future clients from contacting you for design services.

Handling Difficult Clients

When you don’t know where to begin, it is best to start with the experts and we don’t believe there is any industry that deals with more difficult customers than the airline industry. Go Media recently had the opportunity to speak with a manager at a major US airline who deals daily with difficult customers and knows the do’s and don’t’s of how to handle them. There is also advice on how to correctly tackle a demanding client interaction and the best way to resolve the issue so the person walks away with a smile on their face.

Read below for the Q & A:

GoMediaZine: 

How often do you deal with a difficult clients/customers?

Airline Manager:

In my current position, I deal personally with probably one difficult customer/passenger per day. As a department, the Passenger Service group handles a few dozen during the course of a day, I would estimate. These are people for whom something has gone terribly wrong in the course of their travels and who are looking for some sort of resolution. They are looking for it now, and they are looking for it loudly.

GoMediaZine: 

What is the best way to handle a difficult client/customer in a face-to-face interaction?

Airline Manager:

While this is certainly something that varies by industry, I would say that there are a number of effective strategies that are more or less universal. In general, the calmer you are able to remain, the more rapidly you will see your customer bring the tone of the interaction down. You can only yell at someone for so long before you realize that he or she is not yelling back and you change your behavior, if for no other reason than out of embarrassment.  In an airport environment, and in particular in a hub station with the high volume of connecting traffic and increased probability that you will experience some sort of service disruption, this is even more critical. When you get a sandwich you don’t like or your movie freezes or your bed is not made-up to your liking, you are upset and looking for someone to remedy the situation. However, when you are stranded in a foreign city, missing family or friends or important business or a cruise, you tend to go a little insane pretty quickly.

Once you have established that you will not elevate your tone to match that of the irate customer, you need to do a few more things. You have to listen to the problem and try to see it through the eyes of the customer. He or she will tell you everything you need to know. The actual incident is never at the root of the behavior. The more you are able to convey your empathy for the situation the customer is in – “I was late coming in from New York and I missed the connecting flight to San Francisco, where my sister is getting married tomorrow morning.” - the greater the trust that will develop between you and the customer. More than anything, customers want someone from your company to understand the unfortunate circumstances they have been left in. They want to vent, they want to feel that you have understood and cared about their predicament, and they want a genuine apology. Lastly, they want a solution. They want to see you try to find a fix for their problems, and even if the result is not ideal, they will be brought back to a calm state by your efforts and communication. Maintain good eye contact, let them know what you’re doing, and try to deliver a solution that addresses their concerns. It is not always possible to do this, and companies generally employ a Customer Relations department to handle transactions such as refunds or compensation for situations where the employee and the customer were unable to reach an acceptable resolution at the first point of contact.

Difficult Client

GoMediaZine: 

What is the best way to handle a difficult client/customer who has posted disparaging remarks on a social media platform about you or your company?

Airline Manager:

It cannot be overstated the extent to which the social media world has turned the world of customer service on its head. It used to be that you had to be really, really unhappy to actually go home and write a company to express your dissatisfaction. In today’s world, a passenger will post a comment about a service experience while walking down the ramp to board an airplane. The immediacy provides a second of instant release for the customer needing to vent, but this can translate into a week of headaches for the company as they scramble to figure out what went wrong and try to fix it.

Many larger companies now have departments that do nothing other than this exact function – they monitor the internet for content posted about the company or its workers, whether it is positive or negative. My company is no different. We have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed and these are monitored constantly. Passengers post their experiences all the time, and the positive ones are passed along to the stations to share with the employees. The negative posts are generally removed pretty quickly from our sites, and if posted elsewhere efforts are made only to have falsehoods removed from other sites. It is not advisable to engage directly with the complainant in an online forum. If he or she provides a means for making direct contact, this is a better approach. You are able to understand what is at the heart of the issue and to provide resolution, if appropriate, utilizing the same techniques described above.

Difficult Client

GoMediaZine: 

How do you teach your employees how to successfully treat clients/customers especially difficult ones?

Airline Manager:

As I mentioned, the dynamics of a hub airport environment will supply an endless train of spectacularly angry customers as the weather, air traffic, maintenance and any number of other external forces conspire to wreak a unique brand of havoc on the prospect of successful completion of one’s journey. There is no place quite like the airport when it comes to disappointment and rage, and every one of the positions staffed by an airline worker provides a fresh opportunity to send the upset customer happily on his way or to see him led away in handcuffs. I believe there are very few customers that simply cannot be helped, and this is typically because alcohol has been introduced into the equation.

I paint the job of the airline’s Customer Service Agents, Supervisors and Managers as follows: In no industry do you have the opportunity to direct such a massive swing of emotion with so little effort. If you genuinely care about the customers you are interacting with, you have the absolute ability to make someone’s day, every day. Every one of us has seen a lunatic having a nervous breakdown at the airport.  It is loud and messy and tends to be littered with profanity. However, if we can keep this person from escalating to physical violence or making any threats, we can send him away apologizing to us for his behavior and thanking us for taking the time to help. This seems like a fantasy, but it happens every day. You have to like this. You have to find some personal satisfaction in seeing this happen. You can’t take anything personally. People lose their minds with the way they allow themselves to behave in an airport. The ground staff has no security whatsoever beyond their podium and the blind faith that you don’t want to get arrested, so you probably won’t jump across the counter at them. I talk to my employees about this, though, and I try to frame it as an exciting opportunity to make someone’s day. I can discuss it this way because I believe it completely. I find few things more satisfying than taking someone who is screaming and cursing and throwing paper and making a spectacle in the middle of the terminal, settling them down, listening to the problem, talking it through and finding a solution. 100% of the time, I get an apology and a “thank you”, even if they are still upset.

Difficult Client

GoMediaZine: 

When you are dealing with a particularly difficult client/customer, how do you calm your own nerves in order to better deal with the person?

Airline Manager:

I do not take anything personally at all. I am able to absorb the bile they  spew in the course of the rant and I try to remain as level as possible. I focus all of my energy on looking at the person and listening. I do not feel nervous or tense or stressed. I think there is a lot to be said for being able to hear through the insults and cursing and ignore it. If you do not feel defensive, you will not act defensively and you will have a successful interaction.

GoMediaZine:

How do you teach those techniques to employees so that they can successfully interact with these troublesome clients/customers?

Airline Manager:

This is a complicated question. To a large extent, it is difficult to teach people not to be defensive. This is a very natural reaction, and one that is more comfortable, particularly for our younger employees. Your company has to have a genuine commitment to providing excellent service, and this has to be communicated to your employees carefully and thoughtfully. Many companies have annual training programs that review policies and rehash the same tired cliches, such as “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” I submit to you that not a single person who has written one of these generic customer service training curricula has worked in an airport.

There are a couple things you can do:

  • Set clear expectations for your employees as far as service standards. Make sure that they understand the way that the company (and, by extension, you, as their supervisor) expect from every interaction with a customer.  Make it a part of the company dialogue, all the time. If you advertise, use these advertisements to focus on the importance of the service your employees provide. The more publicly you shout this, the more clearly your employees can see that service is a value to your company. They feel a sense of pride. Operational performance metrics are good to discuss in order to involve the employees and illustrate that each of them owns a stake in the success of the company. However, you have to tell the story all the time – through examples both good and bad – of what is expected of them as far as service. Otherwise, they will default to operational success because, if nothing else, that keeps them from being disciplined.
  • Personalize any training or discussion about service. This is true of many industries, but the airlines employ a good number of people that do not travel – whether by choice or otherwise – with any regularity. It is a job. Therefore, it can sometimes be difficult for these employees to truly empathize with the person melting down in front of them, since they just look insane. Use examples in your training, in your discussions. Any training should center around participation. You should conduct role-plays, where each person has a chance to be the customer and the agent. The employees will learn from each other, as well, if you hold group discussion sessions and review complaint letters and swap stories. Everybody, from every background, knows what it feels like to be treated well and to be treated poorly. Work some Mr. Rogers stuff on them. It works.
  • Recognize outstanding service, and do it publicly and loudly. Have programs that recognize great service. Share compliment letters from customers with the employees. Compare it to complaint letter, where a passenger was in the same situation but the employee handled it differently. The thinnest of lines exists between a complaint and a compliment, and there are a few very small actions that can change the whole interaction. Have one-on-one discussions with your employees as often as you can regarding service standards, but especially when they have received a complaint letter. Review the letter with a focus on the customer’s perception, as opposed to the details of the incident. Have the employee come up with a way that something could have been done differently to prevent the letter, even if it would not have provided complete resolution.
Difficult Client

GoMediaZine:

What are some of your tips and tricks to not letting negative interactions with clients/customers unravel your whole day

Airline Manager:

I don’t know. I don’t really have any. These things have never stayed with me on a personal level. The only time a passenger interaction stays with me is when I know that the person is still in the station and I follow them throughout the day to see if they make it out on one of the next flights.

GoMediaZine:

How do you translate these methods (from question above) to your employees?

Airline Manager:

I tell them to step away. Go take a break for a few minutes, let your supervisor handle it for a bit. Some employees take these interactions very much to heart and they are stuck with the feeling long after the passenger has left. I have had passengers say horrible things to my employees. Even after we have sent the customers away, denying them transport on us, the emotional affects of the incident linger. There is no single strategy for making this better, but I think escaping for a few minutes is generally a good place to start.

Difficult Client

GoMediaZine: 

What are some ways you distress after dealing with a particularly difficult client/customer?

Airline Manager:

In many of these situations, the ways that people allow themselves to behave are fairly absurd. While I do not generally become stressed from the interaction, I find it helpful to tell the story and laugh about it once I am back in an office or break room, out of sight of customers. It is a good way to blow off steam, if nothing else.

GoMediaZine:

I think most of us can agree that people in the airline industry have to deal with more difficult customers/clients than people in other industries, so how does the advice you give translate to other industries?

Airline Manager:

I think most of it translates fairly well to other industries. Customer service is pretty standard – it’s just the level of crazy that our customers reach that is pretty unique.

About the Author, Go Media

Go Media is a creative agency based in Cleveland, OH that specializes in print design, branding, and web development. We are also behind WMC Fest, GoMediaZine, the Arsenal, Mockup Everything and others.

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