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December 16, 2015

Dealing With Difficult Customers: Lessons learned from Holiday and Post-Holiday Rush

Photo Credit: Stuart Miles via

Customer service employees have it extremely tough during the holiday rush. Crowds are often unruly, chaotic and demanding. Just making it through the day is sometimes all that workers can manage. Then comes the post-holiday rush, which means more crowds and chaos as everyone races to return unwanted gifts, exchanging and looking for deals. Difficult customers thrive this time of year, but they appear all year round- not just during the holidays. How should employees handle problematic customers? Here are the best tips for managing tough customers any time of year:

1. Take a Deep Breath

Prepare by taking a minute for yourself. You’ll need to stay calm. Clear your mind so you can think before you act.

2. Listen to the Story

Customers who are upset want someone to listen to their story. Hear the story and take this time to assess the problem. Direct the customer to stick to the facts: ‘Excuse me, please tell me what happened. I need to understand so I can help you.’

3. Be Direct and Clear

Harried customers will veer off track, citing past incidents, slights and other irrelevant information. In addition, customers may unleash their fury on you in the form of insults and accusations. No need to allow this. You are not a punching bag, so interrupt the customer: “Sir, you’ll need to stop speaking to me that way. I didn’t cause your problem.’ Take control of the situation and guide the customer so the interaction is respectful, not a venomous rant.

4. Solution: What Can You Do?

There may or may not be a solution that will satisfy the customer. Sometimes customer expectations are way beyond company policies and your hands are tied. Do your best to resolve the customer’s issue but be careful to offer only what you can deliver and make sure the customer clearly understands. ‘Here’s what I can do for you…..Is that clear?’ or ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t fix the problem that way. This is what I can do….’

5. Know When to Call for Help 

Sometimes customers are totally unruly and all the direction and empathy you offer is wasted. They are on fire and you can’t even fan the flames. Get help from your manager immediately. Don’t suffer through offensive rants. Stop the customer: ‘Sir I can’t help you. You’ll need to speak to the manager at the desk at the entrance.’ Move the offender along and get to someone you can actually help.

The customer service employee who is direct and clear maintains control over the situation and effectively assists even the most difficult customers. This empowered employee is productive and self-sufficient and stays sane! Customers are respectful (they have to be!) and receive solutions and assistance. Everyone benefits.


Laura MacLeod, LMSW has a background in social work and two decades of experience as a union worker. She created From The Inside Out Project® with all levels of employment in mind to assist in maintaining a harmonious workplace. She is an adjunct professor in graduate studies at the Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work and leads training sessions for social work professionals at The Coalition for Behavioral Health and Institute for Community Living in New York City. Laura speaks on conflict resolution, problem solving, and listening skills at conferences across the country.  To learn more feel free to email Eliza Osborn at or call 877 841 7244.