Strategies for Difficult Conversations – Part I

The past two weeks I’ve received numerous emails from followers and clients with questions about difficult conversations. From accents to constant talkers, and from disrespectful language to unfulfilled promises, some phone calls are definitely challenging. The next few posts will feature my favourite strategies. And I encourage you to share your thoughts and stories in the comment section below.

The most common difficult conversation in business is with an upset customer. The strategies below work the majority of the time. Remember that some people choose to always be angry – and there may be nothing you can do to help them. But you can choose to remain calm and take nothing personally.

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 this can make for a very long phone call, but … they are your customer, so deal with it. Interrupting them is like fuel on a fire. It will only serve to make them more upset and make a difficult situation more complicated.

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

3. Apologize: I know I’ll get pushback 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 have this experience,” or “I’m sorry this is happening to you.” What’s important is that the customer hears an apology. The words “I’m sorry” have incredible power, so use it to calm the customer down, make them less defensive and improve your ability to communicate.

4. Move Toward Logic: In order to resolve the situation, your customer must be able to have a conversation – to listen to you and respond to questions. If they stay in a 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 yours in the comment section below):

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?” (This question allows the customer to share with you their expectations. While you won’t always be able to meet those expectations, you will be able to communicate effectively because of this information.)

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 of voice, you need to ask questions and get answers in real time. Unless of course … you don’t want to keep them as your customer.

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


Closing a sale is the natural outcome of inspiring great conversations and listening intently to our potential customers.

This natural approach still involves a process – a plan that moves potential customers through a journey of discovery with you. So ... what's your process? And am I the right sales coach for you? Let's find out.

4 thoughts on “Strategies for Difficult Conversations – Part I”

  1. I loved this! When I worked at a call center we were always encouraged to interrupt the person to get to the ‘heart of the matter’ in a more timely rate, as call time was a huge issue. BUT, I always ended up with people yelling at me louder! At the time I thought I didn’t have the skill to pull this technique off, but I think it’s that the technique shouldn’t be used at all!

    I find when I’m teaching people about customer service they don’t want to be wrong, whether it’s about them, or the employer. They don’t want to apologize because that makes them wrong. Your suggestions are great, and I heard another one from Tourism NS that I really liked in regards to someone complaining about something that was immaculate (a hotel room) “I’m sorry the room was not to your expectations”, maybe adding on a secondary statement will help clarify what they want to see happen from there.

    • Thanks, Heather. Yes, I always get push back when I ask people to apologize first. The word is powerful but people do get it mixed up with being wrong. And I like your secondary clarifying statement. Great idea!


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