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Retail Customer Service: How to Deal with Disgruntled Customers

As a retail Customer Service Representative (CSR), one of the most difficult parts of your job is receiving angry or upset customer calls or visits. As the old saying goes, “it’s a dirty job…but someone’s gotta do it!” With the right training, practice, and lots of patience, you can get through this; and who knows, you may even turn a negative situation into a positive one, where the customer is satisfied with the outcome and decides their loyalty to your company deserves another chance!

Know This!

Customers don’t normally want to complain, and they certainly don’t want to get in their car to stand in line and return a product they had high hopes of keeping. These customers were driven to their circumstance by poor service or product performance and they are looking for resolution. In a retail environment, there are many methods by which companies receive customer complaints: in-person, on the phone, and online through email, live chat, or social media

On the Phone

As a CSR, it is your job to be prepared for unhappy customers. It is vital you understand what these customers want from the CSR on the other side of the phone:

  • Customers want to be listened to. Let them vent for a while without interruption.
  • They want to be understood. While you’re listening, identify the problem and take notes. To maintain control and clarification, ask open and closed questions. Open questions give the customer a chance to explain. An example would be “How did the lamp base look when you opened the box?” Closed questions invoke single-answer responses, like “Were you home to sign for the delivery?”
  • Customers want to be respected and taken seriously. Even if this is the ninth person complaining about the same expired coupon, you still need to act like it’s the most important call you’ve received that day. These callers are frustrated and they need you to recognize that.
  • Customers want immediate action. For example, if a customer calls regarding an item that has been backordered for two months after the customer ordered it, ending the conversation saying there’s nothing you can do is unacceptable. Immediate action can be as simple as saying, “Let me see what products we have that are similar to that;” or “I am glad I can be here to help you. Let’s see what we can find so you’re happy with the outcome today.”
  • Customers want to be assured that the problem won’t be repeated. In order to ensure your customers’ problems don’t get repeated, keep records, whether in your company CRM or in a self-created Excel spreadsheet. Take notes on all customer inquiries and interactions whenever possible—keep notes just the same. Share feedback with your supervisor so products and customer experiences can be improved upon.

In Person

Dealing with angry or upset customers in a live retail environment can be especially difficult. Humans tend to enter the “fight or flight” mode in stressful situations: you need to stay calm or you may end up feeling defensive and start reciprocating the customer’s emotion. Neither method will work here. In person, effective customer service starts with patience. Show the upset customer that you are listening with eye contact; nod to confirm your focus. Avoid looking away, getting distracted by another customer, or fidgeting. Stay cool and confident, be humble and remain poised. Your composure should help customers calm down. You are there to help customers—so show them you empathize with their situation. Focus on a solution and maintain your understanding that no matter how angry customers are, they aren’t trying to make this personal. Avoid defensiveness at all costs!


Just because you have a computer figuratively (and literally) standing between you and a disgruntled customer doesn’t mean the situation will be any easier to handle. Emotions conveyed via text in emails or live chat can come across as confusing, rude, or sarcastic—whether they’re meant that way or not. When handling upset customers online follow the same steps as you would on the phone or in person (let them vent and let them know you are listening; keep a positive attitude; express empathy; focus on a solution; keep poised and avoid defensiveness).

After the Interaction

Did you handle the situation successfully? One way is to just ask customers in order to confirm their satisfaction. Receiving confirmation straight from the customer is a certainty that you are welcome to ask for. Also ask yourself if, while evaluating the incident, you followed procedure and the steps you learned in training? Did you represent your brand properly and take opportunities to up-sell or cross-sell other relevant products or services? Bring your notes to your supervisor and ask him/her for a few minutes to discuss the customer interaction. Feedback from your supervisor can help confirm that you handled the call professionally and properly, and will assist you in learning how you can make improvements.

CSRs and Supervisors—memorize this:

“Prevention is the best medicine.” By being prepared for difficult calls and dissatisfied customers through proper training and coaching, your customers will be much happier and will likely return based on their positive customer experience. Your company’s customer satisfaction ratings will increase and your efforts will not go unnoticed—so get going, and have fun!

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