Remember the last time you faced a sticky customer situation? A call got disconnected out of the blue, a customer demanded a refund you couldn’t offer, a user started bellowing on the phone…
Each customer service rep faces such customer service challenges from time to time.
The key to successfully handling them lies in how well you prepare yourself for each scenario.
While it’s not possible to prepare yourself for every difficult customer interaction, a little hindsight goes a long way in keeping your cool and responding in a calm and collected manner.
We scoured the web for the best advice on handling tricky customer situations from customer service experts, coaches, and courses.
Take a look at the best tips and practices for handling common customer service challenges like a pro.
Table of Contents
Top customer service challenges and expert advice on how to solve them
- You don’t know the answer to a query
- You have to put the customer on hold or transfer the call
- You don’t understand the customer’s problem
- Your customer wants to speak to your supervisor
- Your customer is yelling/cursing
- Your customer had an awful experience with your product/service
- Your customer is angry beyond repair
- Your customer refuses to cooperate
- Your customer wants a discount/feature you can’t provide
- You’re unable to keep up with your customer service email queue
- You’re having a bad day, but still have to be empathetic
- Customer service can be challenging, but there’s always a way forward
Top customer service challenges and expert advice on how to solve them
Customer service is notorious for being a stressful job, but if you’re struggling to keep your head above the water day in and day out, maybe you need to revisit how to deal with different types of customer service requests.
Here are 11 tricky customer service challenges and best ways to handle them:
You don’t know the answer to a query
You don’t have to have the answers to all customer service questions. But you do need to give customers the right answer, or at least the assurance that you’ll find one.
While it’s okay to not know an answer, it’s not okay to be dishonest or mislead a customer.Don Crawley, IT customer service expert
You may be tempted to make up an answer when a customer throws up an unexpected question, but customers can sniff out fakes quickly. It makes them feel disrespected.
If you try to speculate the answer, you’re wasting everyone’s time.
So, what should you do? Tell them outright you don’t know? That puts the onus on the customer to find out and beats the purpose of customer service.
Instead, Crawley recommends telling customers, “Let me find out for you.” Then, find the appropriate answer, or find them someone who knows the answer.
This simple act reassures the customer you care about their time and are willing to help them no matter what.
You have to put the customer on hold or transfer the call
As an agent, you’ve probably sensed customer’s frustrations when put on hold. It’s understandable. They want to solve their problem, not listen to lengthy automated messages.
So, what’s the best way to handle this customer service challenge? Let’s look at two different scenarios.
Say you have to transfer a call to another department. First, reassure the customer. Use phrases like, “I’m going to escalate the ticket to level 2, and I’m going to personally ensure it’s taken care of,” recommends Crawley.
This tells the customer you’re not going to dump them on another agent and forget about them.
Second, if possible, be sure to let the next agent know what the issue is, so the customer doesn’t have to repeat their problem.
In another scenario, let’s say you need some time to solve the customer’s problem.
Here, Crawley suggests getting a callback number, in case the call gets disconnected.
Another tip is to avoid long periods of silence while you’re problem-solving. Every 20-30 seconds, tell the customer, “I haven’t forgotten you. I’m still here working on this.”
Be sure to thank them too, for their patience. Small flourishes like these go a long way in keeping customer irritation at bay, even when wait times may be “unusually longer”.
You don’t understand the customer’s problem
This could be a common issue with email customer support. Hassled customers are often unable to articulate their problem clearly.
As one customer service rep notes, “When customers are stressed… the questions they have are often different from the questions they type. Sometimes, the question is buried, among other, more emotional comments.”
In this scenario, support operations manager at Zapier, Amanda Cotter suggests first writing the email in your own words. This means deleting emotional statements, and sticking to the facts.
Everything sucks and I hate this’ is not a fact, but ‘something is broken that didn’t used to be’ is.Amanda Cotter, Support operations manager at Zapier
After this, if all you can figure out is, “something’s broken”, Cotter suggests using the resources you have at your disposal to find out.
For example, find out if they’re a new customer, if their account is active, and what actions they’ve taken so far. Some quick research may help you get to the root of the problem.
Even after all of this, if you can’t seem to understand what’s up, it’s best to ask for a video or screenshot of the problem.
If you’re on the phone with a customer, don’t hesitate to ask for a screenshot right away, to save both your time.
Your customer wants to speak to your supervisor
Many reps unknowingly prime the customer for this one, shares customer service coach, Myra Golden.
Here’s what might happen: A customer asks for a discount that isn’t available. You may use phrases like, “The best I can offer is…”
But the customer takes this to mean, “That’s what this agent can offer, maybe their supervisor can do better…”
Instead, Golden suggests being firm with your response, “Here’s what we can offer you: a $10 discount, and that’s our final offer.”
It’s also helpful to remind the customer you’re the best person to solve their problem. Golden offers a helpful phrase, “I have been given full authority to help resolve your concerns. May I have the opportunity to address this first.?”
Your customer is yelling/cursing
Customer service reps are often at the receiving end of customer outbursts and sometimes, customers may also use unpleasant language to make their point.
Instead of lashing back, Golden suggests drawing the line in a calm, neutral, professional, non-threatening manner.
She suggests a couple of helpful phrases for such scenarios:
- “I’m trying to help you, but if you continue to yell and swear, I am going to ask that you call back another time. It’s up to you. You can talk reasonably, or you can call back.”
- “If a few minutes helps you calm down before we continue, that would be okay. You can certainly call me back.”
Once the customer has calmed down, you can go back to solving their problem.
Your customer had an awful experience with your product/service
While you may be used to dealing with angry customers, it helps to remember why a customer may be flummoxed in the first place: they’ve probably had an awful experience with your product.
While offering an apology is the obvious thing to do, most of the time, it’s not nearly enough.
Customer service coach, Leslie O’Flavahan offers three tips for making sincere apologies:
- Don’t write, “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused…” Imagine spending 45 minutes to get your new printer to work, and reading this message. It sounds careless, generic, and impersonal.
- Say “I’m sorry” with “We should have…” This tells the customer you care about rectifying your mistake and making it right for them.
- Pair your apology with empathy. As Flavahan points out, “Apology-plus-empathy is the cookies-and-milk of customer care.”
Here’s what a sincere apology might look like in practice:
“I’m sorry your parcel arrived later than expected. I would’ve felt equally bad if a gift arrived after a special occasion had passed. We should have taken care to ship in on time.”
Your customer is angry beyond repair
This is slightly different from a yelling customer. The customer was clearly wronged, and they’re angry, even though they may not be yelling yet. It’s up to you to calm them down and turn the situation into a positive one.
First things first, don’t provoke the customer further. When you use blanket statements like “My manager will tell you the same thing I’m telling you” or “You’ll have to speak to your local provider for this, it’s not something I can help with”, it agitates customers further, as Golden says in ‘Creating Positive Conversations with Challenging Customers.’
Instead, Golden recommends going out of your way to show customers you’re on their side. One specific way to do this is pacing: matching the customer’s sense of urgency, slowing down so they understand better, and empathizing with their statements.
Your customer refuses to cooperate
You’ll often need customers to provide additional information or take screenshots or videos to help you understand their problem. Not all customers may happily oblige.
Let’s say your customer wants to file a claim, but to do so, they need to send you a picture of the damages. Non-tech-savvy customers may not be confident doing this, while others may think it’ll take up too much time.
Golden suggests using the “feel, felt, found” technique to convince customers. Here’s how it works:
- Feel. Tell the customer you understand what they’re going through. I know sending photos can feel like an extra step.
- Felt. Explain how other customers have felt about the process. Many other customers felt it was time-consuming too.
- Found. Show them how easy they eventually found it to be. This is as simple as taking a picture of the damage and sending us a photo via text. Some people have also found it easy to get their kids to do it for them.
The technique is a good way to convince reluctant customers to work with you and resolve their problem.
Your customer wants a discount/feature you can’t provide
You’d think a simple ‘no’ should be enough to end the matter, but you’ll be surprised at how often customers persist or ask to speak to your supervisor.
While we’ve already covered the importance of being definitive in your response, here are two other tips from Myra Golden to handle such a situation:
- Explain your response: When you explain why you can’t offer a specific feature or discount, it helps the customer accept your word as final.
For instance, you might say, “At the moment, we’re focused on improving X area of our product” or “The sale period ended two weeks ago.”
- Tell them what you do offer: Saying something to the effect of, “While we can’t offer a discount at this time, you might want to check out the flash sale section for upcoming deals on products.” This may help avoid customer pushback.
You’re unable to keep up with your customer service email queue
Do you frequently miss customer emails? Is your customer service queue getting out of hand? Do you struggle with collaboration? The lack of a robust customer service management system may give rise to such problems.
The best way to deal with this is using a simple helpdesk tool to streamline your customer service workflow and improve collaboration.
A customer service tool helps you:
- Assign emails to team members, so you don’t miss important customer messages.
- Mark emails as “open”, “closed” or “high priority”, based on different factors.
- Add Notes to a customer email thread, so you don’t waste time building context when an email is transferred.
- Tag team members when you need to discuss an email internally
Nathan Strang, the ocean freight operations manager at Flexport, shares, using a customer tool like Hiver is like adding an “additional person” to the team.
They receive about 1000 customer emails a month, but they’re able to tackle the volume better with a streamlined customer service process.
You’re having a bad day, but still have to be empathetic
Everyone has bad days, even customer service reps. But letting a bad mood affect your work is a recipe for disaster.
Amanda Cotter suggests creating emotional snippets ahead of time, so when you’re having a bad day, you still manage to sound chirpy.
Some phrases Cotter regularly uses include:
- “Thanks for writing — I’m happy to take a look at this with you.”
- “I hope this points you in the right direction. Please let me know if you have other questions.”
Consider saving these go-to phrases in your email drafts or on sticky notes by your desk.
Note that saving a canned response doesn’t mean you copy-paste the same answer for each customer. Think of it as a starting point for conversations when you’re feeling blue, and personalize for each customer.
Customer service can be challenging, but there’s always a way forward
When customers complain, sometimes unfairly, and you’re at the receiving end, it’s easy to feel dejected and bogged down by your job.
But all you need to deal with in most challenging customer service situations is some presence of mind and empathy.
We know this is easier said than done. But with enough practice and the right set of tools to manage your customer support queue, you should be on your way.