Dealing with Difficult Customers and Providing Great Customer Service

Look around you.

The world seems riddled with angry customers.

You hear stories almost daily about some big company that violated a customers’ rights. In the best case, they had a terrible experience. In the worst case, someone gets dragged off an airplane with a bloody face.

The people telling these terrible stories weren't even the ones affected by bad customer service... Nevertheless, they spread the word. And quickly.

The fact of the matter is, unlike 20 years ago, an irate customer can turn thousands of people sour to your brand. In seconds, a virtual group of thousands (millions even) can assemble to ban your company, kill your sponsorships, and take you down.

What’s scarier, it only takes one bad move by any employee at your company to give your customers tweet-worthy fodder that could damage your brand permanently.

…technological changes have made it easier for customers to shift their loyalties based on how satisfied they were with their buying experiences.
— Stan J Oakley

If you're reading this, you may have dealt with angry and difficult customers too. Maybe you’re dealing with one right now?

These customers seem to suck all your time, energy, and happiness right out of your business. They complain, make demands, and force you to spend an inordinate amount of time fixing their problems so nasty word doesn't spread about your customer service.

It's a firefight. And since you’re the business owner, someone handed you the hose.

Say the wrong thing, and it just adds fuel to the fire. Let it burn too long, and it spreads.

So how do you keep it from spreading? More importantly, how do you keep the next one from starting so you can focus on building a business instead of controlling damage?

That's what we're going to look at today. And it all starts with creating a customer focused organization, from the top down...

What a Customer Centric Organization Looks Like

My boss stood at the whiteboard and told us a story of how he learned to think about an organization. He talked about leadership and hierarchy and organizational structure while drawing an upside-down pyramid.

“Yeah, yeah,” I thought, “I've seen this before.”

In this way of thinking, the leader doesn’t sit at the peak of the pyramid. He or she isn’t some dictator giving commands and chopping heads. He is at the bottom. He hires the right people, does what he can to support his managers, clears obstacles and gets the hell out of their way.

“But,” my boss asked, “if the leader is at the bottom, who's at the top?”

If you said, "employees," you answered exactly the way I did. And, just like me, you'd be wrong.

The correct answer?


Customers are at the top of this upside-down pyramid. They are the base… but instead of lifting us up (if the pyramid were right side up), it’s the responsibility of everyone in the organization to hold them overhead.

It’s a heavy load.

Customers may not be on your payroll, but they are critical to running the company you love so dearly. In this upside-down way of thinking, customers become part of your organization.

What’s more, they interface directly with your employees (in a good or bad way). And that means, if your employees smack around and drag a customer out of an airplane, you can bet your entire company will come to a standstill to deal with the media backlash. 

On the other hand, if your employees wash, style, and dress a little girl’s doll that fell in the mud, that little girl's parents are going to sing your praises, recommend your company to dozens of friends and family, and become a repeat customer for life [1].

In other words, every step up our upside-down pyramid is another layer of customer support... managers, markers, salespeople, and executives who either detract or enhance the customer experience.

So, what's your job?

You guessed it:

  1. Creating an organization that focuses on your customers, and
  2. giving your customers an experience that is so friendly, so amazing, so human, that they have no choice but to ignore your competition and give you loyal, repeat business.

“Aha,” you say. “I see it. I get it. I’m holding up my entire organization and all its customers. I’ll create a process that my employees will follow and my customers will love!”

Before you do that… consider this story about:

A Box and An Angry Passenger (Me)

I knew I was going to have a problem when it came my turn.

With 10 people in front of me, I could see the gate agent was being a bit militant, forcing every single person to shove their bag into a small box by the door.

If their bag didn't fit, it didn't go on the plane. Period.

Side note: Why does it seem like all the bad customer service examples come from the airline industry, and all the good ones come from Disney? Maybe Disney needs to create an airline that gets their passengers to their resort without hassle ;-).

Anyways, my bag always fits in the overhead. Always. I bought it so that it would. I've traveled over 300 thousand miles with this airline, and it's never not fit.

But I could tell, today, standing 10 feet away, that my bag wasn't going to fit in that damned box (that was beginning to look more and more like a hollowed out Rubix Cube).

In other words, my bag wasn’t getting on that plane today.

My blood was boiling. Every customer that approached the gate was forced to shove their bag into a box or give up their overhead bin space to someone else.

When it came my turn, I tried (unsuccessfully) to skirt around the "bag check." I confessed to the gate agent that although my bag wasn't going to fit, it always fits in an overhead bin. She told me it wouldn't. I told my sob story. I told her about my invaluable equipment I was carrying. I reasoned. I begged. I pleaded.

She said if it didn't fit in the box, it wouldn't fit in the overhead. Period. Too bad, you lose.

Now, I get it. There may be some airline rule that states it’s unsafe for a bag that doesn't fit in the box to be in an overhead bin. But that wasn't her argument. Her argument was that the bag wouldn't fit, and I knew it would! In my eyes, she was being unreasonable, inconsiderate, unfriendly, and cold… all at the same time.

I spent the next few hours pissed, and purchased an Internet pass to vent and express my anger on social media.

Though I was polite and diplomatic with the gate agent, my Facebook post wasn’t friendly (at all). That evening, over 500 of my friends and family heard my story listened to my sour experience with this airline.

In retrospect, it wasn’t the gate agents fault. She was following a process. And, per this process, she was in the right.

But that process seemed to forget I was a human being. It seemed to discount how I might feel about the situation. It didn’t consider that people don’t like feeling powerless. And, it was inconsistent with nearly every other gate agent I've ever walked past while boarding a plane.

Okay, okay, enough complaining. What's my point in all this?

Instilling frontline workers with purpose, not rules.

— Stanley J. Oakley

Providing Exceptional Customer Service Isn’t a Process

The point is, creating a customer-focused organization doesn’t mean creating processes or rules that you believe will make a customer happy. The point is, a process won't solve your customer service problems.

A process is a script, and humans aren't scripted.

Instead, we need to create purpose and values that our employees can adopt to build the best damn customer experience anyone has ever seen in your industry.

Easier said than done. But I’ve found just the exercise to help.

In The Customer Rules: The 39 Essential Rules for Delivering Sensational Service, Lee Cockerell (former Executive VP of Walt Disney) lays out everything he’s learned from decades of creating company cultures that serve customers so well, they don’t want to take their business anywhere else.

In chapter 10, Lee suggests writing a script of how a typical customer might experience 5-star service when working with your company.

But you’re not going to use this script as a process. You’re going to use this script as field-training for your employees.

If you want your customers to experience service that’s above and beyond anyone else in your field, write out exactly what this experience looks like and share it with your team. Ask them to visualize how they would do their jobs differently to achieve that experience. Ask them what would they need that they don’t have.

Then, practice. Practice making that dream a reality.

It won’t be perfect at first. But by carefully reviewing how your “perfect customer experience” compared with reality, you and your team can make changes over time to get closer to that ideal.

Customer Service Takes Effort

If you’re serious about creating an outstanding customer experience, it’s going to take effort. And it’s going to take more than that one exercise to get it right.

But think of the alternative.

Time and energy expended talking to angry customers all the time. Time and energy spent fixing service, quality, and other issues. Money wasted “making up” to irate customers for their grievances.

This is not a healthy way to do business. It’s not healthy for your customers, your employees, or you.

I strongly recommend you perform the exercise from Lee’s book above. When you’re done, you’ll have instilled some values into your employees that will help them hold the bottom layer of your upside-down pyramid (your customers) to a higher standard than ever before.

While you’re at it, just buy the book and read the rest. It’s full of dozens of ideas that just might give your customers an experience that ultimately gives you a competitive edge.

About the Author

Michael Mehlberg


Michael Mehlberg helps small businesses owners achieve their goals and live their passion. His approach to technology, corporate strategy, product development, marketing, and sales is both practical and highly effective, and has helped multiple small businesses grow into the company their owners envisioned. Reach out by emailing him at or learn more on our About page.

P.S. Your ideal customer experience isn't this...