How to Deal with Difficult Customers

A Personal Note to Frontline Customer Service Staff

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Anyone who’s worked in a support role knows how difficult it can be. Yes, some customers—hopefully most—are easy to work with and appreciative of your responses. They may even thank you for your help. Celebrate each one of these wins and use them to shape your outlook for the day.

Yet other customers, hopefully a minority, are challenging. They’re agitated before they even reach you, and if you don’t provide the answers they seek, their ire escalates. Even though you aren’t the cause of the problem that prompted them to contact you, they dump their frustration on you anyway, sometimes erupting into a personal attack. This isn’t fair. It isn’t right. But it happens.

First, know that everyone who contacts you makes a choice in how they treat you. They can choose to interact with you in a respectful and humane way. Or they can choose to let their emotions control the words they say and how they speak to you. This is on them, not you. This explanation doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it helps us better understand it.

Next, your responses to these difficult customers can defuse the situation or worsen it. Just as their decision of how to treat you is within their control, your reaction to them is within yours. 

Here are some tips to defuse difficult customer service situations.

Remain Calm

It’s hard to maintain your composure amid confrontation. Yet this is key to successfully dealing with challenging people. Don’t mirror their unruly behavior and reflect their negativity. Instead, counter their inappropriate conduct with an appropriate response.

If your interaction is over the phone, don’t forget to breathe. This will help you relax. It also releases tension. Remember to smile. A smile on your face will ease helpful words out of your mouth. Some reps place a small mirror on their desk to remind them to smile. Callers will hear your smile. Also be professional, treating them as you would want them to treat you. 

Though not as critical when you’re not on the phone, these tips to breathe, smile, and be professional also apply to online interactions, such as text chat, email, and social media.


If you feel emotion building up inside of you that might cause you to say something that’s not helpful, pause. If you’re on the phone, you can ask them to hold while you “look something up.” The same applies to chat. You can also introduce a pause into email and social media support without the customer even knowing it. 

When receiving an emotion-filled email, I make myself wait an hour before responding, sometimes even waiting until the next day. My delayed communication is always more constructive than what I would have typed at first.

Regardless of how you pause a customer interaction, the purpose is for you to refocus your attention on producing a positive outcome and to ensure you don’t respond negatively and escalate the situation.

End Positively

Regardless of the customer service outcome, make sure you conclude it positively. You can thank the customer for contacting you—even if you don’t want to say so. Or end by telling them to enjoy the rest of their day. 

This accomplishes two things. 

For the customer, it may cause them to rethink what just happened, hopefully putting their day on a different trajectory. 

For you, it helps set the tone for your next customer interaction. It signals to your mind and body that the difficult interaction is over, and it’s time to embrace the next one with a fresh outlook.

Take a Break

Sometimes after you complete a negative customer service interaction, you need time to move past it. This makes sure you don’t carry the unpleasant situation you just endured into your next call. 

You may need to take a break. 

Most employers understand this and allow their customer service reps the latitude to take this step as needed. This action, however, should be rare and not the norm. If your employer doesn’t allow this, then do what you can to interject a short pause into your workflow after a difficult call.

Customer Service Success Tip

Work to make every customer interaction produce a positive outcome. Celebrate your successes. Learn how to better deal with difficult customers. Don’t let one rude customer ruin your day.

Working in customer service has many rewarding moments. Don’t lose sight of them.

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Sticky Series books, including Sticky Customer ServiceSticky Sales and Marketing, and Sticky Leadership and Management featuring his compelling story-driven insights and tips.

Peter Lyle DeHaan is an entrepreneur and businessman who has managed, owned, and started multiple businesses over his career. Common themes at every turn have included customer service, sales and marketing, and leadership and management.

He shares his lifetime of business experience and personal insights through his books to encourage, inspire, and occasionally entertain.

By Peter Lyle DeHaan

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, publishes books about business, customer service, the call center industry, and business and writing.