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How to deal with difficult customers

Abigail Healy looks at how you can turn a tricky individual into a loyal client


Lend them your ear

Gemma Antrobus, managing director of Haslemere Travel, says people increasingly want to be heard.


“It’s a sad fact that for all customer-facing industries there is an increase in people wanting to have their voice heard, whether that’s someone just trying it on, having a moan and wanting someone to hear them out or simply wanting something for nothing,” she says.
Antrobus says that while you can’t necessarily spot these customers you can spot situations. Pre-empting them can be your weapon.


“We are very careful about the suppliers we work with and we’ll know about situations on the ground before a client returns from a trip. For example if a DMC has had an issue with a transfer or a client has fallen in the shower and may need to claim on their insurance, we’ll be able to pre-empt that call.”


The most frustrating situations are those beyond your control.


“The weather is one,” says Antrobus. “After a tropical cyclone we’ve had that midnight phone call of: ‘My beach is covered in seaweed’.”


In situations such as this Antrobus says the best tactic is to approach from a standpoint of empathy.


“Show you understand the situation and will do your best to help. Showing your clients that you are involved in the process and calling the hotel on their behalf for example can really help.”


Being open and honest with clients is important too.


“We had one customer who was severely let down by a tour operator and we ended up putting our hands in our own pocket and paying out more than the value of the booking to make it right. Despite all that the client wrote and said they were really annoyed about the situation. I decided they needed a dose of honesty and I explained that the tour operator had not made their booking and we had covered the increased costs. They said they realised they had acted too hastily and now they are one of our most loyal bookers.”


There are some situations in which Antrobus would come down hard on a troublesome client. “A customer booked a holiday through us and then had an injury. Despite it being well in advance of the holiday they decided they wanted to cancel. We went through all the cancellation terms, at this stage usually just the deposit, and double-checked with the supplier. However, it ended up that they would have to claim on their insurance, which we always advise taking out at the time of booking. They clearly didn’t have any and emailed saying they would bad-mouth our business everywhere – on Trip Advisor and social media. I spoke with our solicitor who sent me a few lines to send them, essentially saying: ‘If you put anything in the public domain that is not factually accurate then we will be forced to take legal action’. That solved the issue.”


But what if you are dealing with a customer for the first time who comes across as an abrasive type from the get go?


“Win them over and make them your best friend,” says Antrobus. “We have high-spending clients who can be quite challenging because they want the best so I try to give them the best possible holiday they can have. We have some great customers who come across quite aggressive but I think it is sometimes because they are nervous. Do things to make them feel they will be comfortable and have a great time. Find out as much as you can. Offer them a tea or coffee and find out if they have time to sit down for a chat or whether they’d prefer to take some information and speak on the phone later or receive information via email. Refer to your colleagues too – more people paying them attention can help to make them feel loved.”

Don’t judge a book by its cover

Sharon May, proprietor of Advantage member Worldwide Travel Solutions, says it’s all about perception.


“You might get someone who is irate, attention-seeking or demanding but I take the view of never seeing anybody as difficult – maybe they just want to be heard or perhaps are just having a bad day.”


May suggests a lot of situations can be dealt with by the way you act.


“Listen, be calm, maintain eye contact, talk slowly and think about your body posture. If people are angry it’s usually for a reason so it’s important to listen,” she advises.


But for some customers it can work to be more direct and firm.


“Some people think we have nothing to do all day and want to hang around for a chat – essentially they are lonely. I offer them a job to do like making us all a cup of tea. Non-verbal language can be useful here too – standing up or moving your posture can help a client realise it’s time to leave without being rude.”


Time-wasters are another challenge. “If someone comes in who never books, I tell staff not to be afraid to question them. Asking why they haven’t booked despite quotes being sent out to them might flag up something we’ve missed,” says May.


Experience helps, but what about less tenured staff? “We work on Skype in the store so if one of my team feels uncomfortable or unsure of how to deal with a situation they can message me without the customer seeing and I can help out.”


Overall May’s top piece of advice is to always address a situation.


“In January we had a customer who hadn’t had a reply within the time she expected as we were so busy and she phoned me and had a huge rant. I apologised and told her I really appreciated her having got in touch and I gave her two lounge passes for her trip. She was really appreciative and told me she’d be booking her next holiday with us.”


When it comes to nervous travellers, May advises asking what concerns they might have and helping to address them.


“We show them the layout of the airport and outline exactly what to expect. We also find single people travelling alone for the first time can be on edge. We tell them we get such enquiries all the time – it really helps to relate it to other situations.”

Deliver the unexpected

Peter Finlay, owner of Freedom member Horizon Direct, says customers can become difficult due to situations beyond their control such as changes to flight times or building work at accommodation.


Turning a difficult situation into a positive one is something Finlay focuses on a great deal. He created a training course with a friend at Barclays Bank, which all staff joining his business are required to take.


“It ended up being far more about customer service than the systems they use,” he says.


A key point is that staff should do the expected thing – dealing with any issues a customer might raise – then do something unexpected, such as sending them a gift or offering them a little extra with their booking.


“It’s always the unexpected thing that keeps your customer,” says Finlay.


“We had a lady who goes to Cuba three times a year – always to the same hotel. The first time we booked her holiday there was an issue due to one of the Caribbean storms prior to her departure. Despite our best efforts, the tour operator wasn’t giving us any information and she was becoming more stressed and unhappy and said she’d never book with us again. We ended up going direct to sources on the ground in Cuba to find out what the situation was and eventually she was able to go on her holiday. We then said we would give her a complimentary lounge pass for Manchester airport and she was really pleased and has become a regular customer.”


For newer members of staff Finlay boosts their confidence in dealing with trickier customers by telling them a customer is angry or upset because they don’t understand something the agent knows better.


“It’s not anger, it’s fear – if they felt in control they wouldn’t behave that way.”


Finlay has three key takeaways when dealing with difficult individuals. “Listen, ask and do. If you listen, a customer will tell you what they are expecting and then you can manage those expectations. If they are ranting, ask: ‘What can I do to help sort this for you?’ Inevitably a customer will meet you halfway and you can resolve a situation. Finally if a customer is getting all het up ask if you can get them a tea or coffee then sit down and talk about it. We also encourage staff dealing with more abrasive types to sit back, not forward, as it seems less challenging, and smile – it changes your voice entirely.”

Know their type

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