Handling difficult customer conversation

Difficult customer conversations and the best way to handle them!

Susan, a Customer Success Manager (CSM),  was in for a shock when one of her long-time customers called and spoke roughly to her. She had no idea as to what had triggered the outburst. The business for the customer was going well, support tickets were well within the agreed SLA, and still, there was something going on which the CSM wasn’t aware of. Due to the lack of awareness, the further conversations took a hit and went spiraling downward!

Let’s call the customer “Mr.X” and see what had gone wrong and how Susan should have handled this difficult customer conversation.

What are difficult customer conversation?

First things first-why are some conversations difficult? The talks become tough due to a number of factors. More often than not, it is due to differences in people’s expectations from the conversations and the real value that they get. Sometimes miscommunication contributes to misaligned hopes and expectations. 

Adding to the above point, people tend to react emotionally and these emotions influence and sometimes steer most of their conversations. Your customers, for that matter, all your stakeholders are people, and they sometimes get confused, have bad days, and consequently, things go south.

There are circumstances where businesses do not invest in building relationships with customers. With increased automation, all the playbooks are sent over email WhatsApp, and portal. People don’t talk enough one on one with the customers. 

However, even if you have a relationship, you still need to be brave enough to talk about difficult situations. For example,  most people can’t tell their spouse they want to leave the job because that is not their passion. Even though they talk to your spouse every day.

Again, an example of a courageous yet difficult conversation.

Hence, understanding your customer’s expectations and aligning them with the business’s goals is an important parameter in avoiding tough situations. In this case, also Mr. X must have had great expectations which weren’t probably met by the team. Thus, his reaction is the result of the same. The CSM and her team should’ve focused on this principle.

Other elements which make difficult customer conversation even more difficult

There are some non-verbal cues that can directly affect discussions and conversations which you have with your stakeholders (not only your customers). The following elements, if not noticed and corrected in time, can play a significant role in flaring up the already heated conversation! 

  • If you make faces when you hear something which you don’t necessarily agree with. 
  • If you avoid eye contact with the customer. 
  • You show less interest in the conversation and let the other person take over the discussion. 
  • You’ve crossed your arms, and you’re not ready to agree with anything with the other person has to say. 
  • You try to prove your point by raising your voice during a conversation. 
  • If you’re trying to rush to end the conversation by figuring out a hushed conclusion. 
  • If you start focusing on the negative points about the conversation, instead of balancing it out with positive ones.

These are some of the “human filters” which are inserted by parties at both ends of a conversation. Whether it’s you or your customer, it’s a natural expression to insert filters in order to decrease the discomfort of hearing what we don’t want to hear.

Now, in hindsight, Susan might find some of the above cues in her/or her team’s part which might have accentuated the negative emotions experienced by the customer. 

Examples of courageous yet difficult customer conversation for a CSM

A CSM, through her entire career, would have to face some tough decisions to make. Similarly, she has to have some difficult conversations with the customers as well. It takes a lot of sensibility and courage to decide what conversations not to have. 

Some examples of the difficult conversations are as follows:

  • Customer has made up mind not to renew yet to go to pitch as a last chance to show what your product brings on table.
  • You & your team failed a customer (bug, not meeting timelines etc) still going to customer, have a conversation & act on thing which will get the trust back
  • If you are a leader, letting someone go. 
  • As a vendor partner, proactively escalate to the customer about things that are not working. 
  • Negotiating a Renewal with a customer also requires courage. 
  • Saying “we can’t build you a highly custom made solution Mr customer”. 
  • Changing the topic to move away from tactical conversations to strategic discussions is one more. 
  • Challenging customers that instead of looking around for best practices outside their organisation they have the courage to try, test, and fail fast (within a contained environment) is another one to highlight.
  • Taking responsibility of the team for any failures if any and though not to give excuses, trying to accept it in front of the customer and showing how you plan to move ahead and avoid such things.

This is not an exhaustive list as the challenges and the conversations may vary depending upon different variables. However, the underlying principle is to be prepared for such situations. 

As it turns out, Mr. X was expecting some data which needed to be given to him a week back but the same didn’t reach him until he had to express his disappointment. There may be various reasons for this but Susan should’ve mustered up the courage to have that difficult conversation with him!

Navigating challenging situations and conversations with the customer is not easy. Now let’s see what you need to know to avoid these tough situations in the first place. 

Difficult conversations within the team

Wherever humans are involved, emotions flow! It doesn’t matter if that’s a customer, your boss, your colleague or even your family member. The same goes with the team members and other teams as well. 

Some of the toughest and courageous conversations are those within the organization. As a CSM you might be constantly at loggerheads with the product, support, management, and the customer to find a win-win situation for everyone. Thus, having a courageous conversation even with internal teams is equally important.

Perspective Shifts for handling tough conversations

Don’t be judgemental

It’s so important to suppress our judgmental instincts where we’re having some really tough conversations with the customer. Many times the customer’s anger, frustration, etc. arise out of genuine concerns. You can’t know until you keep an open mind and try to understand their point of view. 

Start with why

Meaningful conversations always start with the identification of the root cause of the issue at hand. You need to ask yourself questions like: 

  • Why is this conversation crucial?
  • What am I assuming here?
  • What am I missing out here?
  • Is there any other information needed to fully understand the customer’s concern? etc. 

Listen Actively

Common sense and active listening are similar in nature. Why? Because active listening is a skill that you need to possess unquestionably. You’d be probably surprised to know how often the ‘listening’ element is missing from conversations. When you are listening to your customers, do it actively. Pay attention to what they have to say and let them feel that you care about their concerns. Focus on listening, reflecting, and learning. 

Acknowledging the problem is really important, and active listening does exactly that. 

Let the customers be themselves

When you mirror back what your customer has said, it creates an air of trust and confidence in them as it encourages them to open up. When that happens, they express themselves much better which is ultimately good for you and your business. Usually, during tough conversations, emotions run high. 

Hence it’s important to let the customer say whatever s/he has to as that will only increase the chances of a positive outcome from the conversation. 

Wear the problem-solving hat

Now, that you know the core issue at hand, you can start devising strategies to mitigate the same. Try to provide solutions that are acceptable to the customer but at the same time are well within the firm’s guidelines. 

Making difficult customer conversation less difficult

Mindset Shift

As already mentioned, ‘perspective shift’ or ‘mindset shift’ is vital even before you approach the customer to start having a conversation. You need to step into their shoes to understand how they feel right now about you. 

Do your homework

Before approaching the customer it’s crucial for you to understand the customer and the issue that you’re trying to solve. You must do your homework to reduce the discomfort which might be experienced by the customer. Spend your time on the preparation of the script, if required. 

Apologize and be empathetic

Don’t hesitate to apologize for the inconvenience caused to the customer. Try to understand what’s the root cause of the problem but before that empathize with him/her for the trouble. This will ensure that the customer calms down a little bit before the actual conversation.

Listen, listen and listen

This skill can’t be emphasized enough. When you listen actively to the concerns expressed by your customer, the customer knows that s/he is being paid attention to which makes them feel important.  As mentioned earlier, focus on listening, reflecting, and learning. 

Address customer concerns honestly

The customer would know when you fake it. As a CSM you want the customer to continue the business with you, and for that to happen you must be genuinely concerned about the problems faced by him/her. Honest conversations are the best way to handle those difficult conversations.

Try to find out a solution together

If you’re unable to resolve the issue at hand, the best way to go forward is to involve the customer to get it resolved. This way s/he will feel more comfortable and will be able to understand your predicament better. 

Hold your ground

Customers are not always right! They might make mistakes and inadvertently blame that on you or your team. You need to hold your ground and tell them fearlessly what is acceptable and what is not. This ensures that you and your customer are on the same page and share the same level of agreement. 

Focus on rebuilding the relationship

You don’t want your customer to churn. It’s an important business deal and you can’t let the customer to just walk away when you can make them stay. Hence, the approach you take to have that conversation should reflect your focus on rebuilding a stronger relationship. Something went wrong and you ended up having the tough talk. Now you need to ensure that the customer understands that it won’t happen again. As a CSM you have to build lasting rapport with customers. 

Prepare for the worst

However, hope for the best! You have to anticipate the worst kind of reaction from the other party. Anger, embarrassment, frustration, etc are the feelings that are experienced by the customer and you should be prepared to handle those emotions maturely. 

Final Thoughts

If you’re a CSM, it’s already tough for you. Customer Success is about being more proactive than reactive. Hence, the job of a CS manager is to be proactive which simply means that problems should be avoided in the first place. To do that you should try to understand what could go wrong, how to approach the situation if something goes wrong, and what perspective shifts you need to take for handling tough conversations. 

Understanding the process, listening to the customer, and preparing well for that difficult conversation would go a long way in handling the situation smoothly.

Customer Success Software

Swagata is a growth marketer at CustomerSuccessBox. Advocate for great customer experience. She is an avid traveler and when she is not working always on the lookout for new places to explore.