How to Deal with Difficult Customers

May 20, 2022

This MTD exclusive - provided by Mike Townsend, owner of Townsend Strategies, a sales and leadership coaching business - is the latest in MTD’s 2022 Tire Dealer Survival Guide series. Stay tuned to for additional Tire Dealer Survival Guide articles.

The more I work with people who deal with multiple customers in a day, the more I see that people have changed in the last five to 10 years. People are now more interested in themselves and what they can get to meet their needs. 

Think about “selfies.” At first, they seemed weird. Now they’re the norm. And then there are the ever so valuable Google reviews that many times will cause a customer to do business with the local tire store down the street, instead of your dealership. Many times, it only takes one difficult customer to sway someone - sending that person to your competitor. 

Difficult customers are everywhere today. And every salesperson I talk with seems to have a story. One recently told me that a customer physically assaulted him over an issue with her car! 

Another time, I listened to a call where a customer blamed the sales associate for her flat tire. (She stated that the salesperson assured her that the tires she bought would be OK for her upcoming trip.) 

And yet another fine citizen called the police when her older Mercedes experienced an issue that she felt the dealership should fix after it had installed new tires. 

A few months ago, I was having lunch with the owner of five stores. He had just dealt with an issue in which one of his salespeople had entered the wrong mileage number into the CARFAX system. The customer threatened to file a lawsuit if he did not fix the issue! 

We know that as new and used cars continue to be more scarce and rise in price, more people will put extra miles on the cars they already own. This is, of course, good news, right? It is if you have a great team of salespeople and service technicians who know how to communicate with customers and explain how to extend the life of their vehicles. 

Today, your salespeople and technicians must be trained to educate the customer and build trust quickly. Why? Because most of the time, difficult customers are created by you and/or your people. And you may not even realize it. 

A large percentage of time, the creation of a difficult customer can be avoided if you would only make the customer feel served, instead of sold. 

A difficult customer who has been educated, served, listened to, informed and asked good questions will usually feel so good about you and your business that they will feel guilty about complaining. 

On the other hand, a customer who feels sold, did not get enough info, was talked over or made to feel like they were stupid will be primed and ready to complain at the slightest opportunity. 

This also applies to consumers who feel that you have neglected them. 

When a salesperson is viewed by the customer as someone who engages them in a meaningful and memorable way, they very seldom complain. To do this, salespeople must be intentional in how they engage the customer by using the right words in the right place at the right time. 

In our training class on phone skills, we cite a proverb that says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Another proverb says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” 

As you can see, it is important how and when we use our words. 

As I mentioned earlier in this article, there was an upset customer who blamed the tire salesperson for the flat she experienced after driving 150 miles away from where she purchased that tire. 

After listening to this call and knowing how the tire dealership only sold what they had in stock, it became apparent to me the salesperson created most - if not all - of this conflict by not educating the customer about the tire she had purchased. 

The salesperson most likely quoted a price that was much less than what the customer assumed the tire would cost, without quoting a premium brand first. 

Since it cost less, she asked, “Is that a good tire?” The salesperson assured her that it was indeed a good tire. In her mind, however, the customer did not expect a blowout - even after picking up a nail - a few days after she made the purchase. 

When confronted, the salesperson told the customer to “calm down.” This was like throwing gas on a fire. And it made the situation worse. 

My point here is simple. Often, it is something that the salesperson does - most of the time unintentionally - that creates a difficult customer and many times it is something the salesperson fails to do, like provide education. Here are a few things to never do when dealing with a difficult customer: 

Never get angry. I listened to a call a few days ago where a new sales associate took a customer’s call - and complaint -  personally and ended up hanging up on the customer. This should never happen. The issue could have been resolved with the right words at the right time. 

Never tell an angry customer to “calm down.” I can point to countless examples where a customer was told this and I could immediately hear the volume of their voice and their anger increase. 

Never defend yourself or make excuses. This often makes matters worse. A simple apology can suffice. 

Never interrupt the customer. Most often, if the difficult customer talks long enough, their rage will burn out and you can de-escalate the situation. 

Never fail to acknowledge the client’s anger. I was privileged to be involved in a conversation with a difficult customer and used this tip to my advantage. Before the difficult customer was finished, she was laughing and became a positive ambassador for the store. 

Here are a few things you should always do when dealing with a difficult customer: 

Always listen actively. This almost always involves note taking and body language, proving that you are listening - not just offering an immediate solution. 

Always allow their anger to burn itself out. The more they can talk and vent, the more they will hear themselves being unreasonable. Many times during this process, you have to use your notes and repeat what they are requiring of you, especially when they are asking for something that is unreasonable. 

Always visualize the customer cooling down. If you allow them to talk enough and you show them some empathy, they will be ready to hear your solutions. 

Always keep yourself calm by breathing in a measured way. We are all human. I had a customer one time who was so mad, he was acting like a toddler pitching a fit over a lost toy. It was the worst I have ever seen a human being act in public. He made me mad. The only way I could get my blood pressure under control was to allow myself to take 10 deep breaths - OK, maybe 11 or 12! The extra oxygen helped and the time it took to slow down and breathe helped me think of a solution. 

Always acknowledge their feelings. I remember telling a customer, “I understand how you feel. I would be mad, too.” We ended up making her extremely happy and she provided us with a positive review. 

Difficult customers are not easy to deal with. That’s why they are called “difficult!” 

If you adopt and follow a robust customer experience strategy that makes people feel served and not sold, most customers will not be difficult at all. 

Without a process like this, you are constantly rolling the dice with people and their fragile emotions. 

Being equipped to make everyone feel served is much easier in the long run and will yield a bigger return than immediately reacting to difficult customers when they confront you. 

Many of the same skills used to be a good leader will help you eliminate potentially difficult customers and also will help you make many of your once-difficult customers happy enough to become positive ambassadors for your business. 

I also encourage you to think about how you have dealt with difficult internal customers (your employees) and how you have kept them on your team. 

Difficult customers will not go away, but you can limit the number and you can improve on how you engage each person in a meaningful and memorable way. If you are intentional in how you engage every customer, the results will become measurable in the form of more sales and increased profitability. 

And this may even result in plenty of positive Google reviews to help drive new customers to your store. 

Mike Townsend is the owner of Townsend Strategies, a sales coaching and leadership coaching business. He has 30 years of sales experience—half of them in the tire industry. As a Six Sigma black belt and professional trainer, Townsend says he “has witnessed every scenario and heard every objection in the retail tire environment.” For more information, email Townsend at [email protected]

About the Author

Mike Townsend

Mike Townsend is the owner of Townsend Strategies, a sales and leadership training and marketing company that advises independent tire dealerships. To contact Townsend, email him at [email protected].