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Basic Conflict Resolution Skills: Customer Conflict

Customer ConflictAs more businesses are recognizing, the more technical your business gets, the more low-tech your customer service needs to be. Through my mediation practice, I have handled consumer/merchant claims and what I have observed is that many of these conflicts could have been easily avoided and they create enormously toxic bad-will for a business of any size. Often these conflicts grow from misunderstandings, faulty product or service, and unrealistic expectations that often stem from a lack of communication or misleading marketing. This survey article will provide you with basic understanding, strategies, and tools to handle customer conflict.

Why Resolving Customer Conflict is Important

Customer conflict is deadly for your business. Your customers are your livelihood. Some believe that there are “many fish in the sea”, but the reality is that modern technology and word of mouth enables just one fish to communicate to multiple schools of fish on a global scale. If you are running an online business, this reality is particularly important to absorb.

This does not mean you have to be living in terror of your customers and be hanging on every Google keyword alert. You will not be able to please everyone, and there will be individuals who find it amusing to post negative reviews for your business (even if they disclose that they have never even stepped foot into your restaurant), but you can focus your business on serving the customer and resolving those conflicts with empathy and integrity and by doing so, you will rightly earn the trust and support of your customer base.

Types of Customer Conflict

Customer conflict generally flows from a real or perceived broken promise: a faulty product and/or a faulty service. A promise was made to the customer and for whatever reason the customer believes that promise was broken. The customer complains that they did not get what they requested, the product was not delivered on time, or the product is broken or buggy.

Client Conflict Types – Better Understanding Your Customer

Understanding your client’s conflict type can help you better approach resolving the conflict with your customer, address it most effectively, and consequently lower your stress level in handling the conflict.

Conflict Seeker – Addicted to Conflict

Conflict Seekers are a particularly volatile type of unhappy customer. They tend to expend a great deal of emotional energy and their anger is frequently fueled by completely different sources. For instance, the customer could be contacting you that afternoon because their mother died that morning that included a contentious family argument, and they really needed to distract themselves with work-related activity to avoid their emotional rage and trauma. The problem is, their real rage could wind up getting channeled to you.

Conflict Seekers often have no sense of boundaries or respect for others and how their behavior affects others. They can often be very self-focused. You may notice that this type of personality seems ‘addicted to drama and conflict’. There can be physiological and psychological reasons why this is happening.

Interestingly, people who are addicted to conflict may be seeking out drama and conflict because it may be triggering adrenaline in the brain. Through my practice, I have observed that sometimes people feel good when conflict occurs because they interpret the conflict as feeling needed or loved. Essentially, healthy communicating, such as in a healthy marriage, has been replaced with negative communicating because they are not getting their needs met and do not see any other way.

If you are handling a customer you suspect is addicted to conflict, there are many things you can do to deal with the situation which are outlined in the strategies below.

Generally, try to give the customer the benefit of the doubt. Never abuse the trust the customer has put in you—they are providing your livelihood. But do not let them be abusive by establishing boundaries. A happy medium can be found as revealed below.

Conflict Avoider

Conflict avoiders can present a different type of problem. Typically, the problem at hand is bigger than they are letting on, or in how they are expressing themselves. For instance, like a mask, they could be smiling and talking calmly about the conflict when truthfully inside they are overwhelmed with anxiety and anger. Conflict avoiders in particular need to be asked very directly, in a non-threatening way, about whether or not you have met their needs.

Conflict Cooperator

Conflict cooperators tend to work with parties to find solutions and are generally more flexible, collaborative, and patient. An important point to remember with this type is to ensure that their needs are met by being direct as with the conflict avoider. Be careful not to abuse this type’s goodwill because they are investing more time and energy and are often quickly turned off by the first sign of a business focusing on its self-interests rather than the customer’s.


Genuine empathy is the secret ingredient you may have been seeking to take your business to the next level.

Empathy is truly feeling what your customer feels.

Why is this important? Empathy is what allows you to truly connect with your customer on a much deeper level to help them solve their problems. The greater empathy you can feel for your customer, the closer you can get to satisfying their needs which is a key to successful business.

Empathy is critical for resolving conflicts with your customers in an extremely effective and powerful manner. If you try it, and truly feel it, you may be surprised just how powerful the results can be.

Sources of Customer Conflict: Lack of Clear Communication or Faulty Service/Product


Marketing is often the start point for which you interact with a customer and the problems can start with your marketing. Marketers will argue that truthful marketing is the kind of marketing no one wants to hear. People want to be told a story, and the bigger the tale the better.

The problem with this approach is that it rarely makes for a happy ending in real life, for instance, when a piece of software fails to deliver on its big promises. The unfortunate consequence, however, is that such dashed expectations can tarnish your brand and become a real public relations nightmare.

However, if you create a product or service that truly delivers outstanding value at a fair price and the marketing truthfully reflects these qualities, your customers will be pleased. Note that the customer may be pleased compared to being thrilled if you offered outstanding value at a bargain price. Outstanding value at a bargain price is not truly sustainable in practice because we live in a finite universe of time, energy, and resources. Thus, an honest marketing approach that avoids mis-communication provides more realistic expectations, greater trust, lowers the risk of conflict, and better positions the business to succeed for the long-term.

The Contract: The Promise

A contract is a set of promises. The contract is typically the crux of a disagreement between the parties. Here are some questions to ask:

  • What are the specific points or clauses in question?
  • What was each of your understanding of the agreement/contract?
  • If the contract was vague, could this be the point of contention?

Make sure you spell out terms clearly and in writing. If you determine that the contract was vague, getting the contract reviewed and revised for plain English by an attorney is strongly recommended.

Lack of Communication

Lack of communication, in general, on an account is perhaps the number one complaint for service professionals. Even if you cannot speak with a customer that day, a 50 second message letting them know that you will get back to them can go extremely far in keeping the relationship strong. When you do not communicate with your client, you are communicating that they and their problems are not important to you—the person they have put their hard earned money and trust to solve their problem. Avoid breaking that trust.

How to Resolve Customer Conflict

Making time and dedicating resources to handle customer conflicts will go far to help establish and build your business. Being responsive to customer conflict will earn trust and further help establish your brand. For instance, if you download an app and experience a bug and report it to the developer who acknowledges your email and fixes it within a few days, you are much more likely to purchase more apps from that developer than one who does not even acknowledge your email.

1)    Take a customer’s conflict seriously

2)    Prepare before the call or email

  • Gather all the information necessary to deal with their complaint or conflict thoroughly (e.g., get the contract, pull up their invoice, put the product/code in front of you)
  • Calm yourself (assess your tolerance for conflict: are you afraid of conflict? Do you respond to complaints or criticism defensively? If so, try the Basic Breathe exercise)
  • Do some breathing exercises
  • Commit to being helpful

3)    Ask the customer to specifically identify the problem as they see it and do not correct, judge, or challenge them

4)    LISTEN actively, without interrupting, or being defensive or angry

  • If they are screaming, let them vent, do not put the phone on mute and do not interrupt them for at least a few minutes so they can release
  • Listen carefully to what they are saying and take notes if it is relevant to the complaint and focus on the facts

5)    ACKNOWLEDGE their anger, frustration, or the emotion you can detect

6)    Repeat back what you heard, confirming what they said

7)    Typically a customer knows what they want to make things right. But if they have not expressed a concrete desire (e.g., all their money back), ask what would make things right

8)    Consider where the problem arose from—was it an inaccurate marketing claim?

  • If it was a marketing problem, schedule a time to change or fix the confusion or vagueness quickly to avoid more similar claims
  • Sometimes people want services and things for free and this is not acceptable either as you are in business to make a living
  • Ask why your customer is interested in returning; was there something they did not get? Is there something you could do to improve the service or product?
  • If you promised a no-questions asked return policy, make good on your promise and do not ask questions

9)    FOCUS on the facts and explain how you see the problem

10) Consider what remedies you can realistically offer (e.g., offer a partial refund for the day/hours/month if you are charging a service charge)

  • If you can make that promise happen, do it. If you need to get approval, tell them you’ll get back to them and FOLLOW THROUGH—this is critical because trust and good faith can be restored if you make a good faith effort and prove that you can make good on your promises. Avoid promises you know you cannot keep—it can make your life much easier.

11) NEGOTIATE a compromise or solution

12) If your remedies are not acceptable to the customer, ask what else would it take to make it right

13) If you reach impasse, then you may want to consider taking the matter to a neutral third party such as a mediator before having to go through the time, cost, and emotional expense of having to go to court

14) FOLLOW UP with your customer after the incident to make sure that the solution was agreeable and assess how the solution worked for the business as well


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