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5 Helpful Tips for Handling Difficult Conversations With Customers

Communication tactics for turning problems into solutions.

Spark - September 2022

No matter how hard we try to avoid them, difficult conversations are an inevitable part of working with customers. People make mistakes, expectations go unmet, unforeseen issues arise … and your job is to communicate with clients through the good and the bad. While these discussions are never easy, there are some tactics you can learn to make it a less painful experience and improve the outcome for both you and your customers.

1. Reframe Your Thinking

Whether you’re delivering bad news or addressing an already-frustrated client, your first instinct may be to go on the defense. But it’s essential to take a step back from your emotions to avoid escalating the situation. Approach the conversation with a solutions-oriented mindset, and view it as an opportunity to learn and improve as a professional.

Pro tip: If you get physically flustered in tense conversations (increased heart rate, sweaty palms, heavy breathing), it's your body's natural fight or flight response kicking in. To combat this, take some deep breaths or focus on small movements like wiggling your fingers or placing your feet firmly on the ground.

2. Don't send a text or email.

We’ve all experienced a time when we’ve sent a well-intentioned email, but the meaning just got lost in translation. That’s not a huge deal when Jim from accounting gets your lunch order wrong, but when you’re dealing with a customer, the last thing you want is to have to do more damage control when you’re already doing damage control. No matter how uncomfortable it is, your clients deserve a phone call or in-person meeting to talk things out openly. Of course, it’s ok to send a follow-up email recapping the conversation and next steps; in fact, it may be wise to do so to ensure you both are on the same page.

3. Be honest and direct.

Face the situation head on by explaining what happened and why. Don’t try to skirt the issue, make excuses, or play the victim. If you messed up, own up to it. If something went wrong due to forces beyond your control, simply state the facts. No matter who’s at fault, it’s important to apologize for things going awry. Apologizing shows you care more about the customer than being right, and it will help rebuild trust and move the situation forward.

4. Listen and ask questions.

After you’ve said what you need to say, pause and let the client respond. Avoid the temptation to zone out and mentally rehearse what you’ll say next. Practice active listening, which means being attentive to what they’re saying and giving verbal and physical cues that show you’re engaged. Acknowledge the customer’s feelings by paraphrasing what they said, or follow up with questions to better understand where they’re coming from. When you put yourself in your client’s shoes, you’ll be better equipped to find the right solution.

Pro tip: If your client is delivering criticism about your service, try not to take it personally. Use the opportunity to self-reflect and see where you have room to improve.

5. Work toward a solution together.

Once you’ve laid out the problem, ask the client what they would consider to be a good outcome. Then be clear about if and how you can deliver on that. Perhaps they want you to communicate more frequently. Can you commit to responding to emails or calls within a few hours? If you dropped the ball, what can you do to make it right, and how can you hold yourself accountable to avoid the same mistake next time?

If the client has unrealistic demands or expectations, take the time to explain what you can reasonably deliver on. Keep in mind that they might not get the answer they want. While you should aim to find a solution that works for both of you, you should also know when to walk away. If you can’t come to an agreement, respectfully tell the client that you’ve exhausted all options and that it would be in everyone’s best interest to part ways.

Of course, parting ways is the worst-case scenario, and most of the time, things won’t escalate to that point. By being honest, acknowledging the customer’s needs, and staying focused on finding solutions, you’ll be able to navigate any difficult conversation that comes your way.


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