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How to deal with difficult customers

Posted by Ilona Wallace on Aug 2, 2016 9:30:00 AM

Challenging customers can turn up in the most unlikely of places, at the least helpful of times. They may be regulars. They may be having a bad day and taking it out on you.

Front-line hospitality staff are generally the first to encounter difficult customers, so it’s good to know how to diffuse the situation. Your workplace may have a policy for dealing with customer complaints – if so, refer to that. Calling customers’ issues “formal complaints” will ensure they know that you are taking them seriously.

Before you label someone a “difficult customer” ask yourself if their complaint is valid. Are the dishes dirty? Were they served the wrong thing? Did you forget their wake-up call?


A photo posted by lisabonnici (@lisabonnici) on

Mistakes happen, and if you can quickly identify an error and its easy fix – new plates, a complimentary meal, a discounted night’s stay and a taxi to their meeting at the hotel’s expense – then this is the quickest, least stressful way of keeping your customer happy (and keeping your job).

Sometimes, however, complaints can be a little more difficult to fathom.

1. Does the customer know what he wants?


Some complaints are frustratingly vague. When asked “What can I do to fix this?”, the customer may not be able to articulate what he wants. Sometimes, when customers are angry, they like to express their frustration – complain for complaining’s sake – and they may not actually be looking for a solution.

If this is the case, thank the customer for bringing the problem to your attention and, if you can, offer him something – a coupon, a free drink, a discount on his bill – for the inconvenience.


If the complaint is specific and the customer wants the problem solved, ask what you can do to help make things right. One good way to do this is to ask “What do you think would be fair?”, as this can discourage extreme, unreasonable demands.

This shows that you’re looking for ways to fix the problem, and may help the customer to articulate exactly what he wants.

If you know what his demands are, then it will be easier for you to satisfy his request yourself, or to take the problem to your manager.

2. Can you explain the problem to your manager?

A difficult customer is not going to want to explain herself multiple times to multiple people. When you first hear her complaint, say that you understand the problem (if you do), and repeat the issue back to her.

It may seem unnatural to “parrot” the customer, but being able to reiterate/paraphrase someone is a highly effective communication technique.

It is crucial that you understand what the customer’s complaint is. Even if the complaint seems completely unreasonable, try to get as much detail about the problem as quickly as possible.

If the problem has to escalate to your supervisor, being able to articulate the problem – and propose a solution – will ensure you look professional, make the customer feel that they’ve been listened to, and help your manager decide on a course of action.

3. Are you looking after your staff?

If you are the manager in this situation, and a junior employee brings you a complaint from a difficult customer, there are a few things you can do.

Can you “save” your staff member from the customer?

If the customer has been yelling, rude or offensive, or otherwise acted inappropriately, do your best to take the junior employee out of the situation. This may include sending the staff member to your office or asking that they go to the kitchen. Alternatively, you could invite the customer to join you in another part of the premises.

Dealing with difficult customers can be distressing. The staff member who first encountered the customer may need time to compose himself, calm down, or even vent.

Can you solve the problem without undermining your junior staff?

Often when customers bring a complaint, they raise it with the first staff member they see. These staff are likely to be junior employees with little decision-making power.

When a complaint goes up the chain of command, it’s important to know what the customer’s complaint is and what your staff have already told them.

If the solution involves bending the rules, then it’s okay to explain this to the customer. This way, the customer knows that the junior employee has not been unreasonable by acting according to policy, and your staff know that they will be looked after and supported.

This can be as simple as saying, “Sarah’s right – this is usually against our policy. However, I understand your concerns and can see that this has been upsetting, so I’m happy to bend the rules for you.”


Topics: Hotels, Hospitality staff, Restaurants, Bars