Dealing With Difficult Customers – Know Your Triggers For Unexpected Difficult Conversations By Violet Dhu

Dealing with difficult customers is one of the common types of difficult conversations that you need to be prepared for. And one of the most challenging aspects of dealing with difficult customers is managing our own emotions.

When we lose our self-control, when we get angry or fly off the handle, we are usually reacting to specific things that the customer is saying or doing. We call these reactions, triggers. We are often triggered when someone challenges us about qualities that we are proud of or if they challenge our values. If we want to deal effectively with difficult customers, it is important to be aware of our specific triggers and this in turn allows us to remain calm and better deal with the issue raised by the customer.

Strategies to help deal with your triggers for difficult conversations

1. Self-awareness
Learn to recognise the physical signals when you are becoming triggered. Typical signs that you could be noticing include passive aggressive behaviour like changes in the pitch of your voice, feeling hot or flushed, heart pounding, hands starting to tremble, having sweaty palms, face starting to go red, or finding yourself clenching your jaw.

2. Identify your triggers or “Hot Buttons”
What is it that people do to you that pushes those buttons or releases your trigger? Here is a list of some common triggers that may set you off. Each person will have their own set of triggers and developing awareness around these triggers and what happens to your behaviour is essential if you wish to better deal with difficult customers and other types of difficult conversations.

Tone of voice Screeching, yelling, aggressive tone of voice


Specific word Certain swear words and profanities that you do not like


Non-verbals Folded arms, hands on hips, pointing at you aggressively, rolling of eyes (passive aggressive behaviour)
Actions Leaning over you, banging on the desk, loud sigh, slamming of doors
Content remarks Sexist remarks, racist remarks, sarcastic remarks, remarks that suggest that you’re incompetent or slow.

3. Step back and stay calm
Operate from a position of choice and take control of the situation by being proactive rather than reactive. Step back from the emotion and show the customer that you care by being curious to understand their perspective through listening and acknowledging. This will help the customer to calm down and in turn that will help you stay calm. You can also self-talk yourself to stay calm.

4. Accept that the customer has a right to give feedback
Accept that sometimes customer do get frustrated and emotional and that we have a choice in how much we let this impact on us. Try and put yourself in the customer’s shoes and ask yourself what does this customer need right now? Often, the answer is that they need you to listen and be validated. Avoid jumping to solutions too quickly. Often, customers need to vent and the challenge is to get the balance right between listening and addressing and fixing the problem. Listening to and acknowledging the customer’s concerns doesn’t mean that you have to agree with everything the customer is saying.

The key to working with difficult customers is to be equipped and able to deal with this often-unexpected behaviour and do it well. What happens to you when you are challenged? How do you react to hostile comments or passive aggressive language? Learn your triggers, learn to relax and control them and be curious as to what has set your customer off. This process will help you deal better with your difficult customers and handle difficult conversations.

If you want to learn more about handling difficult conversations and dealing with difficult customers and passive aggressive behaviour, I am running workshop on How to Have Difficult Conversations in Perth on 23 November and in Brisbane on 26 November.

Comments 2

  1. Hi Violet, thanks for the great tips on triggers and strategies for difficult conversations. This is something I have a lot of problems with as I’m not confident in conversation or conflict. I’ll definitely practice these 🙂

    1. Hi Karen, Thank you yes getting to know your triggers is so important. Have you read Marshall Goldsmith’s book triggers? He talks about situational triggers. One of the most powerful comments in Marshall’s book is when we identify our triggers we always have a choice with how we respond. For me, it’s about self-awareness and giving myself permission to slow my response down

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