Dealing With Difficult Customers

How to handle complaints, negative feedback and hostile situations

dealing with difficult customersEveryone has had them: The difficult customer who you just can’t seem to satisfy.

Rather than looking at them as just a headache at the top of the to-do list, these customers can give you insight into your business operations—and provide an opportunity to keep them as loyal customers.

Eve Pappas, vice president and director of operations for Hoffman’s Exterminating Co., Inc., knows this all too well. She had a customer who had experienced termite damage. His contract did not cover repair work.

To deal with the unhappy customer, Pappas suggested she and the manager go out and visit. “Our whole mission was to go, gather information and put together an action plan of how to resolve this in seven business days,” she said.

When she and the manager arrived, they met an irate customer who “came running out of the house, screaming and yelling.” She immediately calmed him down, inspected the site and set an appointment to come back in a few days.

A quick look through the records showed that the customer had been paying $189 for the termite service for 13 years. He also purchased quarterly pest control service for a number of years.

She worked with the manager to add up the numbers and asked, “‘How would you want to be treated?’ He looked at me and said, ‘The contract says this…’ I said, ‘We’re not in court. We’re people and we’re in a people business.’”

She recommended covering the $800 in termite damage to keep the customer happy. It’s the kind of flexibility that comes with a family-run company. Hoffman’s has about 100 employees across five offices, with a sixth to open in early 2023.

But taking a long-range approach—even if there is a cost to making things right—can be useful for any type of pest control company.

“Obviously, with any service-related industry, repeat customers are going to be the lifeblood of what you do,” said Tyler Oliver, assistant chief operating officer for Saela, which has almost 500 employees from Seattle to Chicago. “If you handle one of those correctly, it can be the difference in having that revenue for years to come or losing them immediately.”


One of the biggest keys to success is in empowering every employee to provide “the best customer service,” said Mickey Thomas, senior vice president of customer care for Arrow Exterminators, which operates 162 services centers, primarily in the South.

That means educating the customer that more bugs may be present immediately after a treatment, for instance. It means letting them know to schedule a callback if the problem continues. Or sending a manager if the customer has a problem with the technician.

In a people-facing business, problems are sure to arise. Even the bedbug-sniffing canine dogs “can have a bad day,” Thomas said.

Learning how to read customers—and drill down to the essence of their complaint—is important.

“We definitely have our team members go through the notes and review,” Thomas said. “Is the customer having the exact same issue they had last month? If you see a pattern that maybe we just didn’t meet expectations, you may need to get technical services involved. We have so many layers of expertise that, if we can solve it, we go above and beyond to support the customers.”

Billing and collections can be among the most fraught issues. Thomas suggests not letting unpaid invoices pile up. “That gets the customer in a bind.”

Even then, though, sometimes the customer remains unhappy and the resolution may have to do “with the history of the account,” Thomas said. One such instance: an apartment complex that demanded a lower-than-reasonable rate. The operations manager was empowered to determine whether that account was worth keeping, ultimately deciding it was not.


Then there is the customer who never lets the company know of an issue but takes to social media or review sites to blast a perceived slight.

In those instances, Oliver finds it “best to play a little offense and try to proactively give customers outlets. Send them out surveys after the service that go directly to you instead of posting online. Ask them to leave you a review. If it’s negative, contact them.”

But no matter how much a company does “people will still blast you on social media,” Oliver said. “You have to have a team specifically trained to take care of those things. It can tarnish your ability to take care of new customers in the future.”

Making small deposits in the bank of customer care can help, too, in those times when service falls short. “If you pull up the trash can for a customer, or pick up the newspaper in the driveway, those little things go a long way,” Oliver said. “They remember that. It’s always, ‘Are we doing what we have to, or are we looking for opportunities to make a difference in the customer’s experience with us?’”

Corporate involvement in the communities in which the company operates is another way to build tolerance for those little mistakes. “If I make a boo-boo, they know that we’re real. We’re not phony or fake,” Pappas said.

And disarming the most irate customer can be as simple as lowering your voice, Pappas said, and asking, “‘OK, what is it that I need to do to help you? I need you to start from the beginning so that I can clearly understand how you feel, what’s on your mind and how we’re going to fix it.’ Nobody is perfect. We all can ask for forgiveness.”


Not every interaction can be solved positively and there are times to let go. For Pappas, it was the time a service technician was met with racist threats by a customer. Or the time when a new project in Philadelphia led to one of her crew being physically attacked. In both cases, the company backed their employees and canceled the work.

“Our employees come first,” Pappas said. “Without them, we won’t have a company. We have to send that message to our people that we have their backs.”

Issues where the customer “feels like the business has done something wrong and the business feels like they have no fault whatsoever can be hard to resolve,” Oliver said. Recently, a customer purported that a technician had damaged the property, but an independent insurance adjustor said the products were not the cause of the issue. “We were at a crossroads where the customer felt like we were at fault, but we clearly weren’t,” Oliver said.

It can be harder than ever to keep customers happy, especially with supply chain issues and workforce shortages. “People are understanding,” Oliver said. “But with inflation, it becomes, ‘If one thing has to go, it’s going to be pest control because this issue is happening.’ A couple of years ago, we wouldn’t have lost that customer.”

For her part, Thomas believes customer service has improved and society is returning to a time when they want to deal with a human. “Customers are a little more patient,” she said. “They just want to be heard. They know that employment is challenging and that times have changed. If you’re communicating with customers, they’re more understanding.”