At the beginning of every Service Excellence training workshop I conduct, I ask one key learner-centric question: “What do you hope to take away from today’s workshop?”

Inevitably, one or more participants ask for help in dealing with difficult clients. Heads nod in recognition all over the room — no one enjoys dealing with irate clients.

In the demanding service environment, contending with unhappy clients is a reality. How you choose to handle those clients can make all the difference between a satisfied client and one who walks away angry or upset.

While you cannot control another person’s attitude, it is important to remember that you can control your own. How you approach the challenge of serving difficult clients can make all the difference in your own attitude and perspective.

Clients come to us angry for a variety of reasons, many of which we cannot affect. Yet, there are effective strategies we can use to manage the situation. Let us examine the difficult clients and learn what kinds of tactics are most effective to diffuse their frustrations and negative behaviours.

The most intimidating type of client to deal with is the one who yells or screams at the service employees. I call this type of person “the aggressive client” and engaging him can be quite uncomfortable for an employee, as the following story illustrates.

The abusive client

When David arrived at the office one morning, the day had started quite well. He had spoken with a variety of clients and kept learning new aspects of his job as he solved their problems and answered their questions.

Then came the challenge. As he adjusted his headset, the incoming call button on his phone flashed and David punched the button. He had barely greeted the caller when an angry voice boomed into his earphones.

“What in the world is wrong with you people!” Mr Tan screamed. “Are all of you as incompetent as those idiots who do not understand what I have told you about my course registration last week?”

David gulped and took a deep breath. “Sir, I’m sorry. What are your concerns?” For the next five minutes, David endured an expletive-filled rant from Mr Tan. David was so uncomfortable and taken aback that he could barely get a word in edgewise — and when he did, all he could get out was apologies, which seemed to make Mr Tan even madder.

David was finally able to get Mr Tan’s name, pull up his record in the computer system, and ask a few questions. It turned out that Mr Tan had sprained his ankle and wanted a full refund for a workshop he was not able to attend.

While that was upsetting enough for him, it was the lack of sympathy and understanding displayed by the service employees that had really raised his blood pressure.

The outburst of anger left David feeling helpless, and he could not seem to get back control of the conversation. Mr Tan’s threats to report his unpleasant experience through social media and newspaper forums sent chills down David’s back.

He knew it was important to satisfy Mr Tan so the organisation did not receive a negative review. Yet he could not get Mr Tan to slow down enough to listen to his options.

When Mr Tan finally slammed down the phone, all the pleasure had drained out of David’s day and his stomach was in knots.

Suddenly, the prospect of spending several years with his organisation seemed far less appealing than it had at the beginning of the day. He was emotionally drained and unsure how to handle the next Mr Tan more effectively.

Article by Dr Seow Bee Leng, the principal trainer of Continuum Learning. She has wide service training experience and focuses on equipping and enabling service professionals to enjoy service delivery and create meaningful connections with their clients. For more information, call 9199-5556, e-mail or visit