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How to Deal with a Difficult Customer

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How to Deal With a Difficult Customer
A simple, effective approach to handling a potentially combustive customer situation.

Ed Owen has worked as a service advisor and service director in the automotive industry for 26 years, and has co-owned Waltham, Mass.-based European Auto Solutions for 12 years. Throughout those years, he’s spent much of his time at the front counter.

Over that time, Owen has dealt with hundreds of difficult, angry customers. The key to dealing with them, he says, is letting them vent and get all of their frustrations out before you can calmly address their concerns. Failure to do so could result in a lost customer—or an irate one who leaves a negative review online, which could live forever and be seen by countless potential customers.  

Owen shares the rest of his tips for properly dealing with difficult or angry customers that find their way to your shop.


The biggest thing about an irate or abusive customer is to not put your defenses up. Angry customers often say these two words: ever since. Ever since you worked on my car, I’ve had these issues. As soon as they say “ever since,” a lot of service advisors get into a defensive mode. That kind of logic doesn’t make sense when they’re really revved up and they want answers. All that does is build the situation and makes it harder from which to recover.

When customers come in with 20 things on their minds, you need to let them vent and get things off their chest. It’s important to empathize with them. Once they know that you’ve heard them, then you can usually start talking some sense and logic. Then you can say, “OK, let’s get a look. What do you feel like is the solution that’s right for you?”

Once the customer gets everything out, the solution really depends on the situation. You make your point, and then rectify it either way. If people feel like they overpaid for something, or they didn’t get what they expected, or didn’t get a call on a specific service, of course they’re going to come in revved up. I usually ask, “What makes you feel right about this? Is splitting the cost with us something that you’re comfortable with?” Ninety to 95 percent of the time, they’ll say that’s more than fair.

There are some no-win scenarios that you’ll face. We had a guy in a few years ago who had a car and the left front wheel broke. He told us that it broke again, and he was 100 percent guaranteed that we were going to warranty it. He towed it in, and it was obvious that it was the wrong side. I said that I really wanted to warranty it, but he was asking me to warranty something we didn’t even work on, and I didn’t find that fair. We towed it to his friend’s shop on our dime. I was waiting for him to go online and bash us, but he never did. I think he realized that the evidence was so obvious and we did something out of our way to help him out.

If he or she is clearly wrong, you don’t want to point it out directly to his or her face. We want to get to the point where the customer realizes directly what the truth is. Then we can move on from there. We can go take a look at the car, and show the customer the realistic issues here and why they’re happening. Once customers see these issues, they usually diffuse.

If we make a mistake, we own it—no questions asked. If we’re in the wrong, we need to cover it. If someone’s upset and we’re clearly in the wrong, that’s it. You rent them a car, you give them a ride home, you take care of it on the shop. But if we’re not in the wrong and the customer thinks we’re in the wrong or there’s a misunderstanding, that’s when I’ll sometimes offer to split the cost.

If we go through this process and a customer still leaves a bad review, I would just explain your side. If you don’t respond at all, you only get their side of the story and that’s all people are going to read. At least emphasize with their situation, and say, “From our perspective, this is how we saw things.”

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