Customer Service Speaker Asks: How Many Difficult Customers Do You Really Have?


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One of my worst mental habits is over-generalizing; I admit it.

When I’m trying to drum up business, and I get rejection after rejection, I’m tempted to tell myself, “Gee, they’re just not buying out there, today!”

Well, that’s just plain foolish, isn’t it? “They” or at least some of “them” are certainly buying something. I just haven’t found them yet, right?

Customer service reps also over-generalize, especially when they encounter a form of rejection specific to their work. Often it’s called conflict or anger or simply gathered under the heading of “dealing with difficult customers. ”

Conversations get ragged and emotions fray, and people’s voices start to elevate while faces flush. It’s not a happy time, to be sure.

But really, how often does this kind of “bad call” happen?

I’ve done some surveys along this line and I can tell you this: Most people over-generalize when it comes to quantifying the proportion of their conversations that are negative or filled with anger or conflict.

When you ask reps, you’ll frequently hear numbers up to “80%. ”

When the same reps’ calls are monitored for customer negativity, anger, or conflict, the truer proportion is closer to “5%. ”

Why the gap?

A few reasons come to mind:

(1) CSR’s and their supervisors crave respect, and one way to elicit it is to be seen as heroically handling one tough situation after the next.

(2) It seems a part of human nature, and possibly a deeply rooted survival mechanism, to overvalue negative feedback from our environments. That which is wrong and threatening gets our attention more than what’s normal or even comfortable.

(3) Memories are selective. I can look back on certain seminars that I’ve taught where 99% of attendees raved about them, but 1% griped in their evaluations. Guess which ones I remember from those programs, weeks and months later?

(4) Conflict is juicy, interesting, and provocative. Secretly, some people like it because it keeps them awake and on their toes, adding drama to an otherwise routine task. For this reason, some reps unconsciously provoke negative response from customers. (If you think this is crazy, like firefighters setting blazes for the thrill of watching or snuffing them, see the fine movie: “Backdraft. ”)

Of course, there is a very practical hazard in over-generalizing about the amount of flak we’re facing. We’re more likely to develop the bad habit of “ducking” to avoid it, even when it isn’t there.

We’ll approach calls sounding defensive, ourselves, expecting fights where they wouldn’t occur, otherwise.

And can you guess what happens when we sound defensive, especially at the beginning of conversations? Customers ECHO it back to us, and we think they “started it. ”

So, if you’re a manager, do your own audit of transactions and note for yourself how the perception of rampant conflict is exaggerated. Then share this insight with reps.

This might reduce their stress and defensiveness, and once this happens, your customers may follow suit.

Dr. Gary S. Goodman, President of, is a popular keynote speaker, management consultant, and seminar leader and the best-selling author of 12 books, including Reach Out & Sell Someone and Monitoring, Measuring & Managing Customer Service, and the audio program, “The Law of Large Numbers: How To Make Success Inevitable, " published by Nightingale-Conant. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, worldwide. A Ph. D. from USC's Annenberg School, a Loyola lawyer, and an MBA from the Peter F. Drucker School at Claremont Graduate University, Gary offers programs through UCLA Extension and numerous universities, trade associations, and other organizations from Santa Monica to South Africa. He holds the rank of Shodan, 1st Degree Black Belt in Kenpo Karate. He is headquartered in Glendale, California, and he can be reached at (818) 243-7338 or at: . For information about coaching, consulting, training, books, videos and audios, please go to


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