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From irate to great: Dealing with difficult customers

April 13, 2021  By Claire Sykes

With COVID tensions running high, dealing with customers can be tricky but manageable. Here’s how you can turn a disgruntled customer into a happy regular. © Andrey Zhuravlev / iStock / Getty Images Plus

There isn’t a retailer who hasn’t dealt with them—disgruntled customers. Sure, you do everything you can at your greenhouse and garden centre to offer quality plants and services, but not everyone will be happy. Dissatisfied customers may even be belligerent or hostile about it. Now with the pandemic, tensions tend to run higher. 

Who knows what’s going on in your customers’ lives as a result of the coronavirus? Or maybe the person is just having a bad day; or they’re tired, hungry, rushed or impatient. Or because of past negative experiences with other garden centres, they expect the same poor service from yours. 

Instead of feeding the flames or fleeing them, throw water on this fiery situation. First, gather up your compassion for the person and show it. You can be calm, caring and courteous, maintain your self-respect, and still meet their needs. Think about it: Their chewing you out can be your chance to give them the best service ever. Doing so only strengthens and builds your relationship with them, and boosts business, overall.


Irate customers can become great customers when you apply common sense and the right know-how, by following these 12 steps:

  1. Find privacy. Lead the angry customer away from others in your garden centre, so the two of you can discuss the issue confidentially.  
  2. Don’t be defensive. Try not to take your customer’s behaviour toward you personally. Instead, take the high road toward resolution.
  3. Apologize. No matter who’s at fault, sincerely say you’re sorry for whatever you may’ve done to cause their dismay. 
  4. Empathize. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and try to imagine how they must feel during such a difficult time for so many people. 
  5. Hear them out. Let the person talk, or even vent. It shows you care, which helps to quell their frustration or anger.
  6. Listen to the complaint. Strip it from its angry delivery and take note of the problem, itself.
  7. Express thanks. Let the customer know you appreciate them bringing the issue to your attention. 
  8. Repeat the complaint. Tell the person what you heard them say, so they know you were listening and understand.
  9. Promise a solution. Explain exactly how you’ll correct the problem for them, and for your business.
  10. Make amends. Offer the customer a gift card or ten percent off, to prove how valuable they are to you and your business.  
  11. Get to work. Apply what you’ve learned from this person so you can improve products and services for them, and all your customers.
  12. Follow up. Contact the customer once you’ve resolved the problem at your garden centre, and warmly welcome them back in.

No business can afford to lose customers, especially at a time when the pandemic continues to threaten the stability and longevity of so many independent retail operations. There’s always a way to turn conflict into cooperation, and a dissatisfied customer into a satisfied one. When you do, the constructive changes you make to your business benefit all your customers.  

Claire Sykes is a freelance writer. Her how-to business-management articles appear in retail trade publications from Canada and the U.S.

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