Tough Customers

The customer isn't always right. When clients cross the line, here's how to deal.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the October 1998 issue of . Subscribe »

You've heard the old adage "The customer is always right." Well, you also know there's an exception to every rule. Like when a customer refuses to pay his bill, demands a full refund for merchandise he damaged, makes a scene because of the long line at the checkout counter, or changes his mind midway through a project and expects you to absorb the additional expense.

At some point in your life as an entrepreneur, you're bound to butt heads with customers who aren't right, but flex their muscles, raise their voices and demand their needs be honored--unconditionally. You don't need to tolerate such outrageous behavior in fear you'll offend a customer and lose . Instead, you need a strategy for handling temperamental clients and resolving conflicts.

The right approach will not only help you salvage your client relationships, but also make them stronger and more enjoyable for you. That approach, says author and seminar speaker Dru Scott, owner of management consulting firm Dru Scott Associates in San Francisco, begins by rewriting the adage "The customer is always right" to read "The customer isn't always right, but is always the customer."

"This isn't a right-or-wrong issue, but a relationship issue. The person is your customer and deserves to be served with dignity. You can say no to an angry, demanding customer and still treat the person with respect," explains Scott, who details this strategy in her book Customer Satisfaction and Repeat Business.

Here are ways you can deal with unreasonable clients, treat them with due respect and retain their goodwill:

1. Set your limits. Establish some firm policies upfront, and let your customers know what those policies are. Then there's less of a chance for a misunderstanding or a conflict.

Sometimes a conflict with a customer can alert you to an operational problem you need to address, says Scott. "What formerly was a right-or-wrong issue can become a way for you to fix a problem," she says. "If people complain because they've been waiting in the wrong line, maybe your customer service signs aren't clear. If customers are always late with payments, maybe the problem is your billing process."

2. Learn to negotiate. Know ahead of time what you are and are not willing to give up. Then when you begin to negotiate with a hot-tempered client, you're not making last-minute decisions under duress. Know what part of a project you'd be willing to redo for free; what discount, if any, you're willing to give a customer who's a day late for your annual sale; or how much additional time you'll give a customer to make good on a past-due account.

3. Listen and empathize. Some customers insist they're right and make demands because it's the only way they know to deal with the situation, says Rebecca Morgan, owner of Morgan Seminar Group in San Jose, California, and author of Calming Upset Customers.

Your best defense, says Morgan, is to not take the customer's words or actions personally. "Show some compassion," she says. "Muster up your best professional voice, face and words, and do what you can to resolve the situation."

Henry Luke, owner of Grand Oriental Chinese in Cincinnati, avoids letting a problem with a customer mushroom into an ugly confrontation by remaining calm. "We don't argue with our customers," he says. "They're really our bosses."

When a customer insists he's right--like not wanting to wait an extra 15 minutes for the chef to prepare a specialty dish he's ordered--Luke concentrates on a simple solution, not educating the customer on the challenges of running a busy restaurant. "We're not a fast-food restaurant. Some customers don't have patience. They'll order and then say `I'm leaving.' We apologize and tell them `It's a specialty dish we're cooking. If you're in a hurry, we'll make it a priority,' " explains Luke, who also gives the customer a gift certificate.

4. Keep your emotions in check. Al Martin, owner of Rule1Software, a Redmond, Washington, reseller of computer software products, cautions his employees to never raise their voices, regardless of how unruly a customer is. "Your tone has to be very even," says Martin. "You shouldn't allow the customer's emotions to have any impact on how you handle the situation."

Conflicts can develop when a customer calls to order software and insists the price quote he was given earlier is lower than the price he's now being asked to pay. Rather than tell the customer he's wrong, Martin and his salespeople use another tactic--one that works every time. "I tell the customer what he or she heard on the phone was probably correct, but, in any case, the price was stated in error," says Martin. "Then I ask `What would you have us do?' " In doing so, Martin indicates his willingness to resolve the situation, without debating who's right or wrong.

5. Use humor. You can sometimes avoid an ugly confrontation with customers who think they're free to do whatever they want while shopping in your store, especially when small children are in tow. Humor can help get your message across. Try posting a sign like "Unattended children will be towed away at owner's expense."

6. Let 'em go. Gene West, owner of Eagle Mountain, a resort near Blue Canyon, California, that offers cross-country skiing, mountain biking and hiking, doesn't believe an angry customer is a customer worth keeping. He once asked a skier to leave the premises and never return. The skier had thrown down his ski and used bad language when he learned a trail had been closed for skier safety. Explains West, "I don't want my good customers thinking I allow that kind of behavior."

Armed with these strategies, you'll be better able to defuse difficult situations and know that, if you want to keep customers, you have the tools to do so.

Mad About You

Your customer has every right to be angry with you and your when any of these problems arise:

  • Poor service
  • Bad attitudes by your salespeople
  • Waiting a long time (on the phone or in person) to get help
  • Broken promises
  • Late shipments
  • Delivering the wrong merchandise
  • Not giving complete answers to questions
  • Not taking customer complaints seriously

Make sure your business has strategies to eliminate or prevent any of these situations.


These books can help you figure out what to do when your customer isn't right:

  • Knock Your Socks Off Answers, by Kristin Anderson and Ron Zemke (Amacom, $15.95, 800-250-5308), offers calm, intelligent ways to respond to customers who make your blood boil.
  • Calming Upset Customers, by Rebecca Morgan (Crisp Publications, $10.95, 800-442-7477), shows you how to work through conflicts with customers and maintain a calm work environment.
  • Customer Satisfaction and Repeat , by Dru Scott (Crisp Publications, $10.95, 800-442-7477), describes the people skills needed to defuse anger, avoid complaints and handle difficult situations with customers.

Contact Sources

Dru Scott Associates, (415) 750-1313, fax: (415) 752-7362

Eagle Mountain, (800) 391-2254,

Grand Oriental Chinese , fax: (513) 677-3221

Morgan Seminar Group, (800) 247-9662,


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