Three Ways to Have Better Conversations, Especially with Difficult Customers


Steve Kiernan
Co-Founder & CEO
May 6, 2018
minutes to read

The 3 Tips to Take Away

  1. Respect - Make sure the customer knows you value them, and are taking the situation seriously. And of course, make sure to stay calm, and speak with respect during your interactions with them.
  2. Empathize - Put yourself in their shoes for a moment, a broken heater is really scary in the winter. Understand why they are upset, and it will be easier to stay respectful throughout the conversation.
  3. Actively Listen - If you are actively listening, and not just trying to think of a solution, or of what you need to pick up on the way home, you’ll be able to engage with the customer. You might even think of a better solution if you hear all the details of the problem.

Lets talk about it.

Remember how excited you were the day before you opened your doors for business? The future was uncertain, but full of untapped opportunity. You couldn't wait to get started serving all those new clients. When it comes to business and new clients, you have to take the good with the bad, and the bad means working with difficult customers. Good customers can difficult and demanding, and so remember not all difficult customers are bad; many appear to be difficult because their HVAC systems aren't working, they were unhappy with your service technicians response to  their problem, or they are just having a bad day.  There are many ways to successfully diffuse a difficult customer, and with that we have the top 3 ways to deal with difficult customers.

1. Respect

The difference between diffusing a tough situation and making it more difficult boils down to “being a decent human being.” Lots of service technicians and business owners out there just “follow the checklist” – they take the minimum number of steps necessary to get off the phone or off a job site with a tough customer.  The answer isn’t a magic bullet checklist, a 3-step process, a motivational speech, or a few extra hours of training - to paraphrase several philosophers, do unto your customers as you want to be treated when you’re a customer.

2. Empathize

It's okay to empathize with the customer. In order to truly empathize with them, you need to let go of all your baggage.  It doesn't matter if you are having a good or bad day, you need to leave it. So, try to take a minute or two before you answer a call or step on-site to clear your head and dedicate your full attention to this customer. Now that your baggage has been put aside, take a moment to acknowledge concern through genuine empathy. When you do, you’ll put the customer at ease, establish rapport and improve the perception of your personal customer experience. When you show that you care, customers respond well and remember you positively. They carry that positive feeling with them the next time they use your service, or talk about you to their friends. You cannot always solve a customer’s problem, but you can always make them feel important.

3. Actively Listening

Actively listening is another critical element to empathy. In order to diffuse a difficult situation with a tough customer, you need to pick up on a customer’s tone and sense the level of stress, anger, or frustration.  Active listening also helps you ask better questions as they search for the underlying cause of pain. Active lis­ten­ing is a four-step process that teaches you to focus on the customer, lis­ten for key infor­ma­tion, lis­ten for key feel­ings, and clar­ify their under­stand­ing of what is being said.

Respect, empathy, and actively listening are central requirements for dealing with tough customers and difficult situations.  It is not easy to think "under pressure," but if you can make remember there three point and make a tough customer feel important, you will be able to diffuse any difficult situation.  

Look at Pricing

The start of the year is a great time to look at pricing. Usually, you have an idea of how your company fared the year prior, and you want to ensure you will continue to grow in the months to come. Many of us make New Year’s resolutions with respect to spending or saving in our personal lives, and it’s no different for business owners. Making sure your pricing is in line with where it should be is one of the strongest ways to start the year the right way.

Part of looking at your price book is finding where the issues are, and that can take time. An HVAC company in January is going to be very busy, so it’s a difficult time for a close look. However, a plumbing company might not be as busy. Whenever you tackle this job, your best bet is to look at what your labor rates are. Start there, and let it trickle down across the board. Ask yourself, “Are my labor rates helping my business stay profitable?”

Remember, there are many different services out there and many different groups or communities that you can engage. Never hesitate to say, “Hey, I’m a business owner in Florida. What should my labor rates be?” You can build your price from there. There are also some great billable hour calculators available.

Set Goals

There is no better time of year for looking inward than January. Set your personal goals and company goals for the following 12 months. If you can break those down into departmental goals, even better! Perhaps that means a CSR booking closing rates a little better, or a truck doing 250,000 a year rather than 200,000.

Many companies have found that using an Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) goal-setting system pays off. Looking for a guidebook when it comes to OKRs? Check out Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs by John Doerr. 

One key question is the best way to handle setting goals: Is it smarter for business owners to handle this solo, together with staff, or to delegate completely? 

The best approach is to set goals at the department level. As an owner, you need to take the time to understand what the goals are in each department, and make sure they are in line with your goals for the company. No one likes to set unattainable goals for themselves, so make sure you push your departments to set goals that are lofty, rather than simple ones to feel good about hitting. Entrust your staff to aim higher, and watch how they respond.

Pass Along these Points

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