How to Handle Difficult Customers

In this article I want to share with you a gut-wrenching incident that happened to me and my team in the last year and the lessons it taught us about dealing with difficult customers. (For privacy, while this is an actual incident that occurred, none of the names used below are real.)

What I found is that when your team is able to handle difficult customers kindly and professionally, it speaks volumes about the maturity of your organization. It says that you are hiring the right people, training them the right way, and creating the right culture.

Crying Woman

The Initial Altercation

Kate, a nineteen year-old patient entered our front lobby for a follow-up visit. Our front desk specialist, Melissa, kindly asked for her basic information and her $20 copay. For some reason, the young woman became belligerent. She demanded to see the doctor on duty without following our simple check-in process.

Melissa asked our manager, Julie, for help. Julie is a bright young leader—smart and kind, but new to her post. In order to defend her team, Julie quickly went to the front and kindly, but firmly, asked Kate, “Ma’am, what seems to be the problem?”

Our young patient replied with explicatives, “And who are you, *&^!$*?”

Taken aback, Julie told her in response, “I am the office manager.” After a few exchanges, she showed Kate to an examination room. Julie and Melissa came to find me in the back, and relayed the situation to me. They were both visibly shaken.

I would like to pause the story here to evaluate how, up to this point, we could have handled this situation differently.

Wisdom for the Heat of the Moment

    • The right setting. One of the most important actions that can be taken immediately with an upset customer is changing the setting. Sometimes this is not possible, but when it is I highly recommend changing the setting from public to private. In our situation, we could have asked the patient “Kate, let me see what I can do for you. Would you mind stepping into this room, so I can get someone to help you?” Another crucial step is to invite that person to sit down. Usually when we are standing we are naturally in a posture that subconsciously encourages confrontation. So I recommend that you identify for your team a small, intimate room where someone could be seated for these kinds of situations. This did not happen with Kate. Melissa and Julie engaged her from our highly “fortified” front desk. 
    • The right emotions. When our manger Julie talked to Kate, her intent was naturally to defend the front desk staff member. She was worked up before she even spoke to Kate. Here is what I recommend instead. If the angered person can be seated in a private room, it may give them a few minutes to cool down. This also allows us time to cool down. Then, enter the room assuming that this will be a pleasant conversation. Don’t come in with your own emotions high, ready to defend or to fight. Rather, enter the room calmly, ready to discover, empathize, and help. 
    • The right attitude. Care about the customer’s wellbeing. This begins with your own attitude. Even in the face of conflict, you must genuinely demonstrate that you care. Twitter_logo_blue 
    • The right greeting. Don’t start by asking, “What seems to be the problem?” or a similar greeting that offers the impression that you are prepared for a confrontation. People are usually angry or upset because they perceive something has gone terribly wrong in their world. They may believe, whether correctly or incorrectly, that you and your staff are to blame. That perception must be broken if we are to successfully handle these difficult situations. So, if you talk to an upset customer, start with a kind and respectful, “Hello, Kate. How are you doing today?” 
    • The right body language. To continue building on the non-confrontational approach, make sure you also sit down if possible. Face the person. Don’t fold your arms or cross your legs. Have an open stance to invite them to relax, not defend. Lean forward. Communicate with your facial features that you truly desire to understand and resolve whatever is going on. 
    • The right phrases. Keep coming back to phrases that acknowledge the problem and validate their feelings. For example: “I know there has been an issue that is frustrating you. I want you to know that I totally understand how you feel, and I am here to help you.”
    • The right words. Choose softer words. Words like, problemoffended, or vulgar are provoking and only add fuel to the fire of confrontation. I recommend using words that have the same meaning, but have a more conciliatory effect. For example, use words like issue rather than problem, and upset rather than offended.
    • The right speed. When someone is upset, the key is to listen and to be sensitive to how they they are responding. When you talk to them, don’t speak faster than your own ability to monitor how they are reacting to each word. Slow down.  

The Person Behind the Fury

Here’s the rest of the story…

I entered the exam room to find a thin young lady. Kate was direct, curt, and visibly upset. I introduced myself. “Hi Kate, I am Dr. Wes. How are you tonight?”

“I’m fine,” she remarked without a smile.

“I know you’ve had a rough few days. Let me see if I can help you.” I spent time with Kate listening to her symptoms and what had happened. And while she was on edge, she was not rude to me, although I made sure to tread lightly.

What Kate shared with me next gave me a new insight into the idea of grace for others. Kate was in a desperate situation, at the precipice of a complete breakdown. She was running out of options and had no capacity to process even the simplest of emotions.

She was coming in that night for the results of a test that we had run for her. She was upset because she did not want to discuss it. Her test revealed that she has an STD. Sadly, STD’s among youth is a common occurrence, but I did not know why she was so exceedingly upset. Then she said, “I am pregnant. And my parents don’t know.” It turned out that she lived with her parents, unmarried, and already had a one year-old child. Her parents had been furious with her for being pregnant the first time and severely warned her against another pregnancy.

I listened and tried the best I could to offer words of comfort and wisdom. Then I provided her the needed treatment. But she was still visibly stressed, almost shaking. I asked, “Kate, are you okay?” She looked at me intently. “No. I am thinking about getting an abortion.” We were both silent for a few intense moments. She continued softly, “I told the dad of the child, and he has not spoken to me since.”

I was not expecting that. I was not placing judgement on her, but I was in shock at the the level of pain and despair I could see in her eyes. Despair that was not apparent to Melissa or Julie. Despair that was unclear to me until that point.

I counseled Kate the best I knew how, though I don’t know if anything I said was helpful to her. Then I asked her if I could pray with her. She agreed. I did. And I’ve not seen Kate since that night. But our team prayed for her also, and I hope she is well.

Grace and Boundaries

While we acknowledged that this young woman’s behavior was inappropriate and confrontational, we also acknowledged that as team, we could have done things differently. We could have been better prepared in the step-by-step process we followed initially. More importantly, we could have done better in the way we thought of and perceived this young woman. But what marked us most that night was a fresh lesson in grace. It is true that you don’t really know what another person is going through. Sometimes it is utmost despair they face. And while despair is not a license to injure others, we must balance defending our boundaries with mercy for others (even when we don’t know their full story).

I have seen thousands of patients since I entered medicine. Sure, a few are narcissistic and pompous and sometimes rude for no reason at all other than their own feelings of entitlement. But you know, even those people have their own issues. So while we must maintain our boundaries, we must also acknowledge that with grace, the vast majority of confrontations can be diffused. Angry people often respond to our unexpected kindness and mercy. I believe more often than not, disgruntled people have a story, just like Kate.

When faced with difficult customers, patients, or people, have the wisdom to say and do the right things, the boundaries to uphold when necessary, and the grace to freely extend. And in that grace, we demonstrate God’s love and model it to others.

Actionable Step: Find a neutral place to diffuse dramatic situations with customers. Create a training program that focuses on wisdom, boundaries, and grace.

Your Friend,
Wes Saade MD Signature

About Me: As I finalize this blog on a Sunday, I am getting ready to spend the afternoon with my family. We started this tradition last year that every Sunday afternoon, we spend two to three hours together in a time of fellowship, music, and fun.

What I am Reading Now: The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do by Jeff Goins. I started this book yesterday. Jeff is a highly successful blogger and author, and has been a friend and mentor to me during the last few years. Click here to hear my interview with him about his last book, The In-Between.

For Further Reading:

When Things Go Wrong: It’s Time to Evaluate Maturity
The Most Difficult Aspect of Leadership: People

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