Conflicts are bound to happen in the business world. Your customers expect something from you, and sometimes they feel let down. That may be your fault, or it may be their fault, but either way, it’s your problem — and you need to help your customer service team handle these situations.
You can define conflict in the customer service world as a serious disagreement or argument about what was expected from a company and what was delivered. It takes effective management skills to resolve these conflicts. And because conflict resolution is one of the most important customer service skills your team can have, it’s important to get it right.
If you're wondering how to resolve conflict in a way that doesn’t drive away customers, the most important things to remember are active listening, communication, focus, and just being empathetic. But how does that look in practice? This guide breaks down practical tips you can use with your team right now.
1. Listen to customers
Listening should be your first and foremost strategy for handling problems with angry customers. Patiently allow them to communicate whatever needs they have and listen intently to what they’re saying. Convey compassion for what they’re experiencing, and demonstrate care in resolving the issue. And be genuine — don’t pretend you’re listening. Really listen and seek to put yourself in the customer’s shoes.
Quick tip: Reflect their complaint back to them, which demonstrates you have been listening and have received their input. Don’t repeat what they said word for word, just paraphrase it so it suggests you are trying to verify you’ve understood them correctly. For example, you could say, “I see, so the package arrived three days late and did not have the right contents? Am I understanding that correctly?”
2. Watch your tone
Sometimes, we say certain things and even mean them that way, but our tone suggests otherwise. Watch your tone when speaking to customers and avoid sounding dismissive or annoyed — this is a vital part of conflict management. Speak in a non-combative manner and communicate true empathy. Be open and don’t judge them — you don’t know what they may be going through besides problems with your product or service.
Quick tip: Don’t go too far — avoid taking on a fake, cheery tone that will sound insincere to the customer. Just remember the previous tip to truly listen and care about your customer’s problem, and your tone will naturally follow.
3. Avoid reactive responses
Customer service professionals are humans, too, and sometimes a customer’s accusatory tone tempts them to react in kind, which only exacerbates the interpersonal conflict. You must resist this temptation because it turns off customers and will ultimately hurt your reputation as a company if it happens too often.
Don’t respond with anger, and be tactful with your responses, or you may have difficulty retaining customers. And don’t personalize the interaction, which risks making things more emotional. Remain composed when the customer is not.
Quick tip: Use redirection to steer the conversation away from blaming and toward fixing the issue. Ask follow-up questions about the customer’s problem to dive deeper into it and address the root cause.
4. Maintain focus
The key to good customer service is to stay above the fray and not get rattled by the chaos of emotional customers or the sheer volume of complaints. Maintain your focus and use it to redirect angry conversations into a calmer space. Stay invested in creating a solution and avoid tangents or insults. If the customer insists on making negative comments, disengage from it and let the customer finish before attempting to move on.
Quick tip: Have a thick skin. Sure, that’s easier said than done, but one thing that helps is to continually remind yourself that the customer is not angry with you, they are angry at an experience. Their comments reflect themselves, not you. By maintaining your focus, the customer will come to see you as their ally against this negative experience, not the embodiment of the experience itself.
5. Use soft language
Words matter, particularly in customer service. Even if you use the right tone or are doing a good job listening, certain trigger words will set off a customer. For example, if you use “hard” vocabulary like “always” or “never,” the customer will feel judged or bossed around and explode on you.
Buffer difficult conversations with soft words, such as “perhaps,” “typically,” or “occasionally.” These come off as reasonable suggestions rather than judgments or commands.
Quick tip: Softly and gently refer to the customer by their name. By being personable and using soft language, you develop a gentler situation and create a space where you can both solve the problem together.
6. Seek common ground
Sometimes, the conflict will seem insurmountable. The customer will demand the world from the company over a small issue, and their demands will seem unreasonable and unsolvable. In these cases, seek common ground.
Find areas where you both agree, and start working on expanding those spaces. Work toward a common accord and seek win-win solutions where you both get something out of the deal, even if it’s not everything you want. Demonstrate a good faith effort to solve the problem.
Quick tip: Be honest and straightforward about what you can give them. Sometimes a customer will relent if you just say something like, "I'll be honest, Mr. Smith, I completely understand what you're saying but the only widget we have is Widget X. I know you wanted Widget Y but we just don't have it. I know that's unacceptable so I can offer you an extra widget or free shipping, whichever you'd like."
7. Maintain boundaries
Not all conflicts can be resolved, and that’s OK. Some customers are just unreasonable and not worth bending over backward for. If all your good faith efforts have failed, politely thank them for contacting you, apologize for not solving their problem, and end the call.
Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of, and ignore the mantra, “the customer is always right” — don’t let customers abuse your good faith efforts when they’re clearly operating in bad faith. It’s OK, you can lose one customer.
Quick tip: Don’t hesitate to punt the customer to a manager, especially if they’re being abusive. Sometimes, all a customer wants it to have their call “escalated.” If it’s clear you won’t be able to solve their problem, let the manager handle it.
8. Accept conflict
Accepting that you will deal with conflict is enough for some people to handle just about anything. When you go into the day expecting to deal with 100% happy customers, you set yourself up for disappointment.
Here, it helps to look at the data. If you see that 50% of your customers give you a five-star rating and 45% give you three or four stars, that means 5% just don’t like your company — so expect 5% of your calls to reflect that. And remember, that means that 95% of your customers are happy, so you shouldn’t let the disgruntled buyers get you down.
Quick tip: Mentally rehearse the conflicts you are about to encounter before the day begins. By visualizing how customers are likely to interact with you, you will be better prepared to deal with problems.
9. Keep a future focus
Most conflicts are focused on the past — “your company did X to me and I’m upset about it.” Your focus should be on the future — i.e., what will it take to get this customer to a happy place? Consider saying that directly to the customer: “I’m sorry to hear that Mr. Smith, my goal is to make sure you’re satisfied. What if we send the widget to you via next-day delivery free of charge? Would that handle your concern or is there more I can do?”
Quick tip: Avoid getting bogged down in grievances. If the customer wants to complain, allow them to, but immediately seek to redirect toward a successful end-state.
10. Don’t interrupt
Yes, customers can be long-winded in their complaints. But resist the urge to interrupt. Interruptions are rude, and they communicate to the customer you think their concerns are overblown. Let them finish their thought, paraphrase the thrust of their complaint, and then discuss possible solutions.
Quick tip: Pay attention to yourself. Sometimes, we interrupt people without even realizing we’re doing it. Step back and watch how you interact with a customer, or even invite a co-worker to listen in to see if they think you’re doing it.
Software can also have a big impact on conflict resolution
Being organized will help your customer service team feel more on top of things, less stressed, and therefore better equipped to handle a difficult customer. The Blueprint has reviewed the top customer service software options — consider a few and try a couple out. You'll be surprised at how big an impact it will have on how your customer care team interacts with individual customers.