How to Deal With Hostile Customers

June 11, 2024

We’ve all had this interaction. A customer wants some kind of special treatment and says:

“I just want you to replace the spark plugs, I know that’s the problem.”

“Can you just squeeze me in?”

“I don’t have time to bring my car in. I don’t want to pay for a diagnostic. I just want an estimate over the phone.”

Dealing with these scenarios is inevitable in retail. Behaviorally, at least 25% of the American public is dominant and hostile. (Hostile means “me first,” not violent.) Hostility disregards the relationship between two people and focuses only on the self-interest of the individual. They want what they want, they think they know better and they don’t care about your needs.

Has caving to these “one-offs” ever not bitten you in the rear end? They always do — every time. Whether it’s giving a quote to a vehicle you haven’t seen yet, which inevitably leads to, “But you said it was this much” or “ever since you replaced my spark plugs...” or a host of other combative conversations. It never ends well.

Here’s why: The customer is looking for a pre-determined solution to their problem and a price or an outcome they want to happen. Any deviation from that outcome will result in an argument — or worse, you end up refunding or fixing the remaining problem for free.

In any other line of work, there are boundaries — rules that a business lives by and under no circumstances does that business ever cross the line. You get your blood pressure checked at every doctor’s visit. A contractor does not give price quotes over the phone. No plumber will give you an exact arrival time because things happen. They give you a window.

The problem isn’t the customer asking. We live in a (mostly) free market society where business is conducted on a voluntary basis. Customers can ask for anything they want. It’s up to the business to act professionally and decide if conducting business with this person will result in a win/win. In this case, the customer is happy and might return for future business and the company is happy because it made a profit.

When the hostile customer gets his way, it’s usually because the sales advisor is being passive to avoid confrontation. But being passive simply moves the conversation further down the transaction, which is where most customers pay for service.

I’m not advocating that sales advisors meet combative behavior with combative behavior. That won’t work either. The job of a professional advisor is to take in as much information as possible, assess the situation and then explain specifically what possible solutions the business is capable of providing — such as, “I can’t get an oil change done in 15 minutes, but if you can come on Tuesday morning, I can probably have you in and out in 45 minutes,” or, “We don’t give repair estimates over the phone due to the increased complexities of today’s cars, but from what you described as the problem, we won’t charge for a visual inspection.”

If you are frustrated with your sales advisor’s passive behavior with dominant customers, the solution is usually giving him or her the words to politely offer solutions the company can provide, focusing on the ways your dealership can solve the customer’s problems without going down the road of doing favors and one-offs.

You’ve hopefully built a process for this at your dealership, based on knowing what works and what doesn’t. I’m fully aware that once in a while, there are exceptions to the rule. But being an exception is earned through loyalty and familiarity with long-term customers. Long-term customers usually aren’t combative. They understand the nature of a business relationship and know that your reliability in fixing their vehicle comes at a cost of either time or money — or both.

Combative customers usually suck the air out of the room, destroy your employees’ morale and disrupt more than just that one transaction. Have meetings with your people and rehearse polite, multi-optional solutions with sales advisors, so they get some batting practice before the live action. Don’t give them scripts. Advisors need to think on their feet and collect scenario-specific information and process it on the fly. Give them frameworks and give them the rules of the business, but no scripts. If a combative customer hears a rehearsed line, they are likely to get more combative.

By the way, this same logic works with combative employees, as well. But that’s a topic for another column.

About the Author

Dennis McCarron

Dennis McCarron is a partner at Cardinal Brokers Inc., one of the leading brokers in the tire and automotive industry ( To contact McCarron, email him at [email protected].