How to Communicate with Difficult Customers

Theo Kapodistrias
4 min readApr 16, 2021

This article was originally published in The Australian Retailer April-May 2021 edition.

Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

The retail sector was rocked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost as if every day was Christmas Eve (except more terrifying with the mysterious virus taking over our lives), our supermarkets, convenience and grocery stores were filled with panicked shoppers and panic purchasing. Shopping trollies were filled to the brim with canned food, toilet paper, soap, and other essential items. The smell of hand sanitiser filled the air and it almost covered the scent of stress and distress in our stores.

The fear, the terror and the unknown caused customers to feel a sense of stress never experienced before. As a result, customers (in some instances) were forceful, entitled and mean to our customer service representatives. Although unkind customers are not a new phenomenon, there was an onslaught throughout the heat of the epidemic. Having worked in the retail sector as a customer service assistant, as a lawyer, and as a keynote speaker, I’ve had a few conversations with difficult people in my time.

Business News Daily states that 93 per cent of customers are more likely to make a repeat purchase with companies that offer excellent customer service. As tempting as it is to yell, and get angry in response to a mean customer, it is critical for the reputation of the business and for the experience of the customer that we keep our cool.

I’ve got three top tips for how you can communicate with difficult people, particularly in high-stress circumstances.


A key to communication is your ability to respond to what is presented to you. You need to listen to the concerns of the customer and comprehend what the problem might be. Allow the customer to have their say, and express what their concern is, and demonstrate an understanding of what they have expressed to you. Using your active listening skills will allow the customer to be heard. Saying a neutral statement such as “please let me know why you’re upset” can help to build rapport and trust between you and the aggrieved. A handy tip to demonstrate that you’re listening is by repeating the concerns of the customer back to them. This helps you clarify what the customers issue is, but also demonstrates that you heard what the customer’s concern is.

It will also be important to keep calm. Even though it is easy to stop people talking, or pulling people up on inaccuracies, that will anger the customer more.


When people get angry, their tone changes and voice rises. You can instantly tell when someone is mad when they speak.

Chris Voss, the former FBI hostage negotiator discussed that when dealing with criminals, he would use what he describes as the ‘late night, FM, DJ, voice’. By speaking slowly and in a low tone, it can help calm the customer down and they will stop yelling. Voss explains that doing this will trigger the mirror neurons in the brain — you see someone acting calm and your brain will likely respond by also calming down.


When faced with an angry customer, and you have allowed them to have their say, and hopefully they have calmed down, a method of communication which will be important is explaining next steps. The customer will want to know what steps will be taken to address their issue or complaint. This will assist in helping keep your customer happy by trying to resolve the issue, and also allow you to maintain the good reputation of your business.

Difficult people and difficult conversations will arise from time-to-time in the retail environment. The tips identified in this article will provide some guidance and assistance for directing how you may be able to handle conversations with those in tricky circumstances.

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About the author:

Theo Kapodistrias is a multi-national award-winning lawyer and keynote speaker, trainer and advisor. He holds leadership positions in the not-for-profit sector and is considered a thought-leader in the legal environment. He is passionate about being involved in the community and holds several voluntary positions. He recently launched his keynote speaker business helping individuals to be seen, be heard, and make an impact



Theo Kapodistrias

Award-winning Lawyer | Speaker, MC, Trainer, Coach — assisting individuals to speak up, show up, and make an impact —