Why We Should be Grateful for Difficult Customers


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Complaint Department - Please take a Number

It’s normal to be annoyed but let’s not waste the gift

It’s perfectly normal, isn’t it, to react defensively or in a generally negative way when we feel a customer is being difficult?

By which we mean they are being unreasonable, insensitive, rude, or simply annoying.

And even the most zealous advocate of superior customer service will surely agree there is a limit to how far we should be expected to go with the old “customer is always right”, principle.

Because, objectively speaking, sometimes customers can be quite unreasonably demanding, or just plain rude.

But it’s not good business to allow our initial or even abiding sense of annoyance or indignation to waste what is paradoxically a gift to our business by passing up the learning opportunity.

The fact that a customer is behaving in such a way as to have been tagged by us as “difficult” may in fact be saying something we need to know about our business, our products or our service delivery. Even – or especially – if it’s something we don’t really want to know right now.

Turning the situation around

And sometimes, by handling the problem effectively we can see a “difficult” customer turn into a happy one and even an advocate for our services.

That can happen where someone feels that no one is listening to them, then a person in the company takes an interest and helps solve the problem.

Have you ever been the difficult customer?

I know I have, and more than once.

For example, just a couple of weeks ago we found, on a Friday night, that all our websites seemed to have been hacked and variously disfigured or made to disappear.

Our first attempts to get help from our web hosting service HostGator were frustrating:

  • a long time delay for the online chat service
  • pro forma response from Support when we raised a ticket there

And it was getting late into the night and I was tired.

So I went on Twitter and with a “not happy” tweet I quickly got the attention of the person or people handling the HostGator account there. They requested my details via direct message and promised some action. I went to bed and when I woke up and checked in I found a detailed report from HostGator support, most of the sites back up and running, with nasty code eliminated, and sufficient instruction for me to be able to fix items that I needed to do directly.

HostGator kudos tweet

I had quickly switched from difficult customer to happy customer and once again an advocate for HostGator. And tweeted about my pleasure with that.

Six benefits of a ‘difficult customer experience

In a post on this subject elsewhere, on the MYOB Pulse blog, Why difficult customers are good for business I have written about six benefits that can be wrapped up in the “gift” of a customer being difficult:

  1. Highlights a product flaw
  2. Exposes a practical gap in staff knowledge
  3. Shows the customer’s perspective
  4. Pinpoints communication challenges
  5. Exposes a “sales at all cost, forget about after-sales service” mentality in your business
  6. Reveals a 3rd party supplier problem for which we are responsible to answer to our customers

You may think of more. If so, please share.

Image credit: Complaint Department – Please Take a Number by Niven, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Des Walsh
Des Walsh is an executive leadership coach, social media strategist and LinkedIn expert. He is passionate about sharing his understanding of the benefits of social media in a way that makes good sense for business.


  1. There is certainly important information that can be gleaned from complaints, but since I’ve worked with thousands of seminar participant who deal with those difficult customers, let me share some information.

    Some 40% of my seminar participants have experienced some form of unwanted physical contact (tie grabbing, jabbing finger in chest), while even more have received threats.

    Those customers who are gifts are also verbally abusive, sometimes showing frightening display behavior (throwing things, desk pounding, trying to intimidate).

    Those difficult customers eat up as much as FIVE times the amount of time to deal with compared to more well behaved customers, and that means MORE angry customers who have to wait longer.

    When I see the “difficult customers are a gift” stuff, I wonder how often the speakers are actually working ‘on the line’ and dealing with them on a regular basis. It’s easy to think abstractly and corporately, and I commend the positive thinking here, but how about we consider the damage to the people who get paid least, and have to suffer the stress.

  2. Robert

    That’s an important distinction and I can see how a blog post title like the one here could annoy you.

    One thing I always find upsetting is seeing signs in doctors’ waiting rooms that aggressive behavior will not be tolerated.

    I don’t for a moment think that sort of verbally and/or physically aggressive behavior is to be in any way thought of as a “gift”, much less tolerated.

    At the same time, I believe there is value in checking our reactions to “everyday difficultness” on the part of the people we serve, to see if there is something we need to fix.

    I see a separate, not closely related discussion being appropriate and necessary (especially for the “front-line” people – interesting military metaphor), who have to deal with sociopathic behaviors of the kind of which you write.

    I’m wondering how you go about that sort of discussion.

  3. Mgrs follow Maslows hierachy of needs – create a safe envinment first, then deal with it. Violence removes permission to speak. Thats a standard in all communities, from “we dont give in to hijackers” down to shop counters.

    Many companies blame lack of advertising budget or poor location or GFC for poor sales, when if only they would listen they might hear that a rude receptionist or poor restaurant lighting (easy fix) stop people coming in.

    In other words, YOU NEED TO KNOW.
    With my social media hat on, PUBLIC customer service drops CSR calls down to 1/5. Fix only persons problem publicly & it gets passed on to another 4 who need that answer. We also prefer the devil we know – a hotel with complaints on TripAdvisor “not good for kids”, wont worry childless travellers.
    We learn so much from getting things wrong if only people would tell us, and if only we would listen.
    BTW your comment mechanism is challenging, any chance of single sign in, facebook connect or Disqus?

  4. Good points, Laurel.

    One weekend I observed on Facebook that whereas two telcos had people responding to comments and handling complaints, one had people on the job over the weekend, the other didn’t. The first had a page with problems being solved or at least dealt with sympathetically and promptly, the second had the complaints piling up and feeding off one another. No prize for guessing the better look.

    The site management is not in my hands but I’ll mention your comment about sign-in so it doesn’t get missed.

  5. We’re exploring social sign in and hope to offer it in the future.
    Thanks for your suggestion.


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