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Win Over Difficult or Combative Customers

Posted by: Today's Tip Contributor on December 28, 2010

Eventually, all small business owners are faced with a customer who’s ready for conversational battle. Sometimes there is good reason for these combative conversations; sometimes there isn’t. Either way, when faced with this situation, you might get the urge to fight back. Or you might try to submit or adhere to every demand of the other person. Neither of these options is a good idea. Instead, the best way to extinguish a fiery conversation is to be assertive. To do this you need to listen up, pace yourself, and then take the lead.

Listen up. In a poker game, the player who bets last has a big advantage because he or she gets to hear the other bets first. Using the extra information, he or she can make better decisions. This principle is the same for conversations, especially difficult ones. Always let difficult customers speak first so you can use what they tell you to craft the right response.

Pace yourself. Mirror the customer’s body language, tone of voice, and talking speed. This is known as pacing. Don’t duplicate the behavior, but strive to create similarities. Take into consideration gestures, posture, hand positioning, and rhythm of speech. If mirrored smoothly, it will create an instant connection. If applicable, use a phrase such as: "If I were you, I would feel the same way."

Take the lead. Once you have established a rapport, you can start to move the conversation where you want it to go. Slowly bring your tone, body language, and breathing into a calmer, more relaxed condition and the customer will follow. Lead customers out of their current emotional state by putting their feelings in the past with statements such as: "So you were mad when …."

Always strive to achieve a state of cooperation in the customer relationship. No matter how difficult a customer is being, you have been approached because he or she believes you can help. By using the listening, pacing, and leading method, you can bring the customer to a position where solutions are much more easily realized.

Keld Jensen
Centre of Negotiation at Copenhagen Business School

Reader Comments

Daniel Rush

December 30, 2010 11:43 AM

The only response to combative cusotmer who calling you a "&^%$#@"
is to ask "we can do to make you happy?"

MIcah Solomon

December 30, 2010 1:57 PM

I'm sure that Keld Jensen's advice is sound in a negotiation; and there is much here that is sound, however, there are some points that are different when working with a customer. Working with a an upset customer is not a negotiation, and approaching it as such--or worse, as a poker game, as suggested here-- is going to lead to likely disaster. Customers are always customers, and it is not an even relationship. You are hardly "playing poker" and this idea that you are trying to "get the upper hand" with the customer is not one that is going to work, I am afraid. Rather, you need to take the customer's side immediately and avoid any idea that this is some kind of legalistic negotiation.
Micah Solomon

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