Strategies for “Difficult” Conversations – Part I

September 14, 2014
Mary Jane Copps

Thanks to friend and colleague Wendell Waldron, partner at IOL Marketing,  for suggesting this series. If you have a specific “difficult”  you’d like me to include here, please leave me a comment.

There’s a lot of variety in what each of us finds difficult. We all have different tasks and situations that we find challenging. However, when it comes to phone communication, difficult can be defined as a conversation “needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand” or a person who is “not easy to please or satisfy”.

The most common difficult conversation in business is with an upset customer. While the strategies below work the majority of the time, they work best when you remain calm, take nothing personally and give your full attention to both what the customer says and how they say it.

1. Emotion vs Logic: When a customer calls us with a complaint they are emotional. They are upset, angry, disappointed, frustrated – or perhaps all of these. They are unable,  in the moment they call you, to participate in a logical conversation. The best way to understand this is to think about your life and someone close to you. Think about the last time you had a conversation with this person during which you were both emotional. Which one of you was listening? … Exactly!

Do not try to engage the customer in a logical conversation until they have finished telling you their story of why they are upset. I realize that this can make it a very long phone call, but … they are your customer so deal with it. Interrupting them is like fuel on fire. It will only serve to make them more upset and make a difficult situation even more complicated.

2. Speed: Upset customers will be speaking quickly and this does impact our ability to communicate with them. We can take advantage of the phone’s ability to be a mirror by slowing down our own speech – and maintaining a very calm, pleasant tone. The customer will be drawn to mimic us and although this won’t solve the customer’s problem, it will improve our ability to understand them.

3. Apologize: I know I’ll get some push back on this but … apologize near the beginning of the conversation. Once the customer has told you their story, told you everything about why they are upset, the first words out of your mouth should be “I’m sorry”.  Now I’m not advocating that you take the blame for anything. You can say something like “I’m so sorry, we never want any of our customers to feel this way” or “I’m sorry, this is not something we want any of our customers to experience”.  What’s important is that the customer hear an apology. They need to know they are important to you and that you empathize with their situation. An apology does all of that and … it calms them down, makes them slightly less defensive, which will improve your ability to communicate with them.

4. Move Towards Logic: In order to resolve the situation, your customer must be able to have a conversation – to listen to you and respond to questions etc. If they stay in that place of high emotion, that won’t be possible. You must do your best to guide them back to logic and you can do this by asking them an open-ended question, a question they will have to think about in order to give an answer. This will prompt them to engage the logical part of their brain. You are not making any promises with this question, simply creating an atmosphere where a productive conversation can take place. Here are some examples (add your’s in the comment section):

“I’m so sorry, Laura Bell. We don’t want any of our customers to find themselves in this situation. Tell me, what are you hoping will happen next?”

“I’m so sorry. Lloyd Hollingsworth. We never want any of our customers to feel this way. What other details can you give me that will help us find a solution?”

5. Put Your Ego Away: Dealing with an upset customer is never about who’s right and who’s wrong – it’s about keeping the customer. Do not allow your need to be right to enter into the conversation. It will create animosity and miscommunication.

6. Pick up the Phone: Under no circumstances should you hide behind email with an upset customer. You need to hear their tone, you need to ask questions and get answers in real time. Unless of course … you don’t want to keep them as your customer.

Enjoy your PhoneWork everyone!


  1. […] 1. “I’m sorry” – While this might seem obvious, I’ve gotten a lot of push back in workshops over the years from individuals who absolutely refuse to use this phrase. These words are not only the best way to indicate you recognize your responsibility for a situation and truly regret its impact on the other person (as in “I’m so sorry I forgot our workshop”), but they also allow you to express empathy and compassion (“I’m sorry you’re in this situation” or “I’m sorry to hear that …”). Often, a sincere “I’m sorry” quickly and easily defuses a highly emotional situation.  […]

  2. […] talking. When someone is upset they cannot hear. If you keep talking, all they experience is your refusal to listen to them, and this fuels their […]

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