Running a Business

How to Handle Difficult People (and Still Achieve Your Business Goals)

A founder's guide to effectively utilizing feedback -- even from impossible-to-please, difficult people.
How to Handle Difficult People (and Still Achieve Your Business Goals)
Image credit: Wavebreakmedia | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Entrepreneur; Founder and CEO, JotForm
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

On a recent Thursday evening, I tried out a new San Francisco restaurant serving California cuisine. A diner at a nearby table was not happy. I overheard him complaining all night -- the lights were too dim, the room too warm, the music too loud. I was hardly surprised when he flagged over the waiter to complain about his meal.

He scoffed and gestured angrily at the plate. I knew where this was headed -- toward a seething Yelp review, or so I thought.

The waiter didn’t break a sweat. Nor did she push the customer to explain himself further. Instead, she offered to replace the dish with anything on the menu and promised to expedite the order. Less than 10 minutes later, there was a fresh pasta entrée on the customer’s table, and the rest of the meal sailed along seamlessly.

Related: How to Collaborate With Difficult People

I marveled at the server’s professionalism under pressure -- her ability to handle a difficult customer and get what they both wanted: a satisfying meal for him and a satisfied customer for her (and, hopefully, a generous tip, too).

We’ve all had our run-ins with difficult people. Aside from being stressful and unpleasant, dealing with challenging personality types can negatively impact our work performance and leadership abilities. Robert I. Sutton, Professor of Management Science at the Stanford Engineering School and author of The Asshole Survival Guide, writes:

“Encounters with rude, insulting, and demeaning people undermine others’ performance -- including their decision-making skills, productivity, and creativity.”

My thirteen years of experience as CEO of my company, JotForm, have taught me that figuring out how to navigate difficult people and still achieve your goals is a critical skill for running your own business, where you’ll inevitably run into exigent customers and occasional clashes between colleagues.

When people are difficult, it’s tempting to fight fire with fire, but I believe there’s a better way to diffuse tricky situations and leave all parties satisfied. Here, a quick guide to handling customer relations, including any challenging personalities.

Keep calm and listen on

Today, online feedback forms and social media platforms offer users more ways than ever to leave reviews. And sometimes, fielding all that feedback can feel overwhelming, like a game of virtual whack-a-mole, except with incredibly high stakes. But as entrepreneurs, we have to be ever-ready to listen and respond to customer comments.

Rather than seeing the multitude of review platforms as a liability, consider it a valuable asset -- a resource for listening and information gathering. Because as it turns out, it means a lot to customers to feel heard.

Related: How Smart People Handle Difficult People

In a study that examined customer-service related tweets for major airlines and wireless carriers, researchers found that customers who interacted with a brand’s customer service on Twitter were more likely to choose or willing to pay more for that brand. The researchers explained:

“On average, across all tweets and regardless of whether the customer used a negative, neutral, or positive tone, we found customers who received any kind of response to their tweet were willing to pay almost $9 more for a ticket on that airline in the future.”

The same went for wireless carriers. While successfully resolving an issue was most effective -- researchers found that it created more $6 more brand value for an airline -- responses without resolutions still provided about $2 in added brand value for airlines.

Receiving a response also increases the likelihood that a customer will recommend your company to others, an important measure of customer loyalty – because reading a rave Yelp review might encourage you to take a gamble on a new restaurant, but a recommendation from a friend will have you booking a table ASAP.

Lean into questioning

Sometimes, nothing can be done to change a customer’s situation. For example, your flight was canceled and you missed your sister’s wedding -- an airline voucher won’t replace the missing maid-of-honor.

In most cases, you can ameliorate the issue, or at the very least, allow the customer to air their frustration. To do so, you have to ask questions -- and keep asking until you understand the other person’s perspective.

It’s not enough to know that a user is unhappy -- you have to know why. For that reason, when testing new products at JotForm, we include a CTA that reads: “go back to the old version,” and if someone clicks that button, a text field opens that asks the user why they want to switch back. It’s just one tiny question, but it can offer valuable insight into how a customer feels.

Related: The 9 Most Difficult Personalities to Manage

The more difficult the person, the more direct questions you’ll need to pose to understand their desires and figure out what you can do. If you’re struggling to glean information, try asking open-ended follow-up questions, like:

“Why do you think that?”

Also, restate the other person’s response to make sure that you’re understanding them correctly. Once your information foundation is established, you can focus on which actions you should take.

Distinguish between a difficult message and a difficult person

When you receive negative feedback, your knee-jerk reaction may be to make a judgment about the customer and write them off as demanding or impossible. Instead of going there, focus on the message itself, not the person behind it. View the communication as a valuable source of information that can help you achieve your goal.

As Harvard Business Review contributor John Butman writes:

“You may not always be pleased with (or agree with) the feedback you hear -- especially when you’re hearing too much of it or none at all. But keep in mind that your mission is to collaborate, and that your goal is not to train your client, but to do the best possible work you can.”

Sometimes the toughest pill to swallow can lead to meaningful changes. For example, recently a user requested a new editing functionality on our feedback forum and wasn’t shy about expressing his frustration with our current product.

At the time, we had functionality very similar to the user’s request. It would have been easy to write off the comment, and assume that the user didn’t know our product well enough. Maybe he had failed to do his homework, or maybe he was just plain difficult.

Instead, we asked more questions. The exchange was an opportunity to learn where our product fell short from the user’s expectations. In the end, we directed him to some temporary alternatives, offered our direct email contact for any questions, and agreed to develop the new functionality. In helping the customer, and distinguishing between the person and the message, we ended up improving our product.

All feedback, including the negative, is valuable. Listening and responding to that feedback can help you to identify weak spots in your business and shore up customer satisfaction and loyalty. Just don’t forget to focus on the positive messages, too. Reviews from satisfied customers remind me of why I started JotForm to begin with: to make our user’s lives easier, one form at a time.

Happy customers will remember a positive experience -- like a delicious meal at your favorite restaurant. 

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