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Managing Customer Conflict in the Workplace

Last updated on 20th December 2023

Some customers can be very tricky to deal with and in these situations, you need to be very careful and do your best to stay calm no matter what. Dissatisfied customers can express their emotions in a range of ways so you should be able to use the HEAT technique to calm any customer who may be unhappy.

Heat stands for:

  • Hear
  • Emphasise
  • Apologise
  • Take ownership.


It is important to listen very carefully to the customer when they are explaining their feelings and how they think they have been unfairly treated. Show them that they have your undivided attention and ask questions about the service or product they were provided with so that you understand their frustration. Usually having someone to talk to and explain their side of the story to will calm the customer somewhat and you can begin repairing any damage.


After the customer has been allowed to let off some steam, explain that you care and want the customer to be happy with the service they are provided. Show them that you have listened and acknowledge any lack of service they have identify which is true. Explain that you understand how this is very frustrating but that you will do your upmost to resolve any issues and to rectify the situation as quickly as possible.


When you or the company have done wrong, you must own up to it. Say you are very sorry for the service which the client has received and reiterate to them that it is not up to your usual standards. Tell the person you will do your best to resolve the issues and that you completely understand what they are saying even if you feel they are being a little unfair. Remember that the customer is always right and when someone wants to complain you should accept responsibility for not providing a better service.

Take ownership

Passing blame off to other people at the company is not a good idea as this will give the impression that you don’t care since it is not specifically your fault. Even if the problem is due to no fault of your own, accept ownership on behalf of the company and explain that this will not happen again. Clients who receive bad service are unlikely to return but if you accept that the service was below par and acknowledge a mistake, they are much more likely to give you another chance to impress.

Manager using HEAT technique to resolve conflict

Behaving assertively

It is not just poor service which can cause a customer to be unhappy. Stress can be caused by problems in their own lives or because of the situation they are in, or even the amount of money they are paying.

Customers will react in various different ways and you need to be able to deal with them to ensure that they are cared for. When dissatisfied, some clients may become upset, so you will need to be caring and appreciative of their feelings; others may become aggressive or shout.

When under pressure or annoyed, people will behave in a manner which they would not dream of normally. Calming customers down so that they act rationally will be one of the best things you can do to stop the situation from deteriorating.

Acting assertively is a good way to defuse the situation if someone does start to get angry. Some people confuse assertiveness with aggression, but they are two very different things.

You should never be aggressive towards a customer no matter what has happened but being assertive will allow you to speak and explain things in a calm manner. Simply standing there while a customer complains will not help anyone, and the client is just as likely to work themselves up even more.

What you need to do is:

  • Listen at first to hear the person’s side of the story, maintain eye contact and agree with the person.
  • Speak in a lower tone and remain calm at all times. If a customer begins yelling and you do the same back, then the situation will escalate very quickly and start to get out of control.
  • Explain that you understand and offer some explanations as to what may have happened. The chances are that everything is due to a miscommunication so try to get to the bottom of the problem calmly and without losing your cool.

The advantages of assertive behaviour

As we mentioned previously, assertiveness is not the same as aggression. The difference is similar to the difference between being confident and being boastful. Confidence is a good trait and allows you to express your feelings and concerns while also letting other people do the same thing.

Being assertive has many advantages and you should make a conscious effort to adopt assertive behaviours when working with a dissatisfied customer. By adopting this approach, you can logically ask about what the customer has experienced and how they feel they can be helped. It may be that the customer thinks they are in the right when in actual fact they are not.

If this happens then you should politely explain your side of things and show that the client may have missed a certain step in a process which is why they received something they deemed below industry standards. Getting to the bottom of the issue by being assertive will allow you to communicate effectively and explain your side of things as well as listen to the customer’s complaint.

Using procedures and systems

There are many different situations that can lead to issues within an organisation. Dealing with these in a personable and timely manner is crucial, but so is following protocol for the company that you work for. You should always make sure you are aware of the organisation’s procedures and systems for dealing with customer service problems and do your best to work within any guidelines.

These systems and procedures are there to make sure everything is dealt with fairly and to protect you as a company representative. If there is an issue, by following the company’s procedures you can prove you did everything within your power to deal with this exactly as you were supposed to.

These different procedures will likely be in place to deal with:

  • Complaints from customers.
  • Returns and refunds.
  • Discrepancies.
  • Faulty products.
  • Good service and support.

Most organisations actively promote ways that customers can offer any feedback and will have systems in place that collect this data. Should these be present in the organisation you work for, then it will be necessary to give directions and advice on using these to clients.

Dealing with customer difficulties in a calm manner

Even the most professional person will encounter complaints and difficult customers sometimes. People who behave in a way which makes them difficult to deal with can make your job very stressful and much harder to carry out, so you need to remain calm and deal with issues in a way that is required by your business.

Your own behaviour will directly influence a customer’s temperament so you need to be collected and professional even if a person is being unfriendly. Everyone tries to mirror the behaviour and state of people that they are surrounded by so being calm and level-headed will cause this to rub off onto the client who will begin to relax.

This is sometimes referred to as ‘behaviour breeds behaviour’, so reacting to unhappy customers by shouting or in an angry way will only cause the situation to escalate further.

Difficult customers do not always get angry and can also show emotion by:

  • Frowning.
  • Getting very quiet and whispering.
  • Crying or getting upset.
  • Being passive.
  • Getting fidgety and visually annoyed.

Any of these types of behaviour can be a clear sign of an unhappy customer and you must react in a positive way and do your best to help the client work through the correct procedures to deal with their issues.

Shop assistant dealing with customer

Customer complaints procedures

Every organisation needs a clear complaints procedure in place so that customers can express any negative aspects that they have encountered. This procedure will include specific tasks that need to be completed at certain times, for example when refunds are to be given or any specific things that need to be done when someone complains.

Most organisations actively encourage their customers to give feedback and often give out forms for people to complete. It is important not to get too disheartened if bad comments are made. Ask the person to fill in a complaints form to formalise their view – this will give the company information that they can work with. Once a formal complaint has been lodged, the company can follow the complaints procedure in place and deal with this as swiftly as possible.

Complaints do not necessarily have to be from clients and could instead be from employees, other service providers and manufacturers. Most companies specifically tell the person what they must do to lodge a complaint, and this is a very open and fair way of dealing with any problems. This can be explained on paper, over the phone or with a complaints page on a website.

It typically answers queries about:

  • How the complaints procedure works.
  • If there are any third parties that can be notified.
  • When the company will respond to complaints and how.
  • What happens next.
  • If there are any other tasks which must be completed to lodge a complaint or request a refund.

Nobody likes complaints and they are not the best task to handle in any job role. However, it is important to remember that a clear complaints procedure should be worked through swiftly with the customer.

This is the best way to make sure the situation is remedied quickly. A record of the entire process is usually kept by the company also, to show they acted according to their complaints procedure.

If a company you work for does not have any complaints procedures in place then it is important to ask questions of management about what to do if someone is not happy.

They should be able to tell you:

  • If you are able to deal with a complaint on your own.
  • If not, then who the complaint should be referred to.
  • When compensation or refunds are to be made and how to do this.
  • What records need to be kept about the complaint.

The way in which a complaint is dealt with will depend on the mediums that are in place. Someone who is on the phone may wish to complain, in which case you must fill in a complaints form yourself as a record, or they may complain in person so will be asked to fill in the form for themselves.

When to pass a problem on

At times it may be wise to pass over a problem to one of your colleagues so that they can deal with the issue instead of you. This should not be seen as giving up or an act of weakness and sometimes this can work to get the problem resolved much faster than usual.

Passing over issues to someone else is best to be done if:

  • A client is a personal acquaintance of yours and you feel that you cannot treat them impartially.
  • The customer requests to speak with someone else.
  • You are finding it hard to keep calm when dealing with a client who is angry.
  • You are unsure of how to deal with the problem.
  • You do not have the authority to solve the issue in question.

If you are to pass over any duties to a colleague, then you must ensure that they are competent and able to deal with the issues that are posed. It may be that they do not have the authority either, so you should ensure that you follow the hierarchy of the company and pass duties on to the correct person.

Make sure that you give your colleague the right details about the customer including:

  • Their names.
  • The date and time that contact was made.
  • Contact details of the customer and preferred contact method.
  • The nature of their problem.
  • Any correspondence that has been had with the customer.
  • If any promises have been made to the client and what these entail.

You may also be required to let the customer know that you have passed them over to someone else who will be in touch to help.

Manager talking to chefs about complaints about food

When to escalate problems to a manager

There are times when a customer’s issues must be taken to a manager or supervisor. Working in a customer service role means that you need to understand when this is necessary and have the ability to spot signs that could lead to the problem being escalated.

If a customer is being threatening or abusive to you, your manager can be asked to step in and help with the situation. If this does happen then it is very important to stay calm and allow your manager to help deal with the situation and find a resolution.

Similarly, a customer that is threatening legal proceedings or wishes to discuss things that you are not authorised to deal with (for example refunds and replacement items) then your supervisor should be called in to solve the client’s issues.

Implications of admitting liability

When dealing with complaints it is quite likely that the business has not provided a perfect service. When this happens and negotiations are entered, the company may decide to admit liability for the poor service provided. When this happens it is important to ensure that policies and procedures have been checked, as well as terms and conditions to ensure that the company is in fact liable.

Admitting liability can have a lot of impacts on an organisation which include:

  • Having to pay damages to customers.
  • Having to refund payments that the business has taken.
  • Getting a poor reputation through bad service.
  • Possible legal action for the poor service provided.

Admitting liability can be a very good thing at times. It may help to reconcile with the customer and provide them with what they need.

By admitting mistakes and then rectifying these, the company will not get as many bad reviews or complaints. Usually the first step to coming up with a solution is for the company to admit responsibility for their mistakes and then help to bring customer satisfaction for their clients. At times though, admitting liability can lead to a lot of trouble.

If a company is liable for poor products that risk the safety of their customers then they can face legal proceedings. Manufacturers of products are responsible for things that do not meet regulations and what they offer to the public must be safe to use.

A business has to:

  • Warn customers of potential risks.
  • Provide information to help clients understand these risks.
  • Monitor the safety of products.
  • Take action if any problems are found.
  • Ensure that what they sell meets regulations and laws in place.

Should a company not meet regulatory standards, they can face legal action and may even be forced to stop selling their goods. For example, items that are manufactured such as cars will need to meet very strict safety regulations so that they can be offered to customers. Failure to meet these standards will result in manufacturers being forced to remove the model from the market.

Offering compensation for poor products

Once an issue is found and liability is accepted by a company, they may look to conpensate the buyer. Some businesses rely heavily on brand loyalty; this means that they will be very quick to offer replacement goods even if they are not liable for any issues.

Doing this gives a range of advantages such as:

  • Generating brand loyalty.
  • Solving any issues quickly.
  • Stopping complaints by providing alternatives to customers.
  • Developing a strong reputation for customer service and quality.

Companies that offer many products will rely on repeat customers. Because of this, it is actually cost effective to give away a replacement, even when the company is not at fault, than it is to lose a customer who may purchase many more products in the future.

Large companies like Apple are very well known for replacing items when required as they know that this builds brand loyalty and that the person is likely to buy a new laptop or phone from them again in the future.

There are, of course, some downsides to offering replacements.

The main one being that this can be very expensive. Giving away free alternatives to clients when not at fault is not obligatory for a company and will eat into profits as well as make customers think that the business is to blame even if this is not the case. These drawbacks should be weighed against the increased brand loyalty when a business is deciding to offer a replacement or not.

Manager reading over complaints, looking for ways to improve the cafe

Reviewing customer complaints

Some complaints from customers will be unfounded and simply someone trying to get their money back after having changed their mind.

Others will be much more serious and the client may have a valid reason for their complaint. In these situations, you should work to understand exactly which areas were substandard and put measures in place so that this does not happen again. Complaints that are very serious will require a change to be made to either the service offer or the service delivery.

The service offer of a company is all about what will be given to the customer. This includes the actual product or service that is sold as well as the support given to customers throughout their experience. It is essentially anything that the customer is paying for.

The service offer may be re-evaluated if complaints are made about:

  • The quality of a product that they purchase.
  • The quality of customer service that comes with the product.
  • The pricing of the product or service.
  • Any additional features that are on offer with the product or service.

Should a lot of complaints be made in the above areas then it may result in a change to the service offer. The pricing of goods may be altered, the quality of manufacturing improved or more support may be provided to go alongside products and services.

Service delivery

Service delivery is not about what is provided but how and when it is given to a customer. Modern customers expect things to be done quickly and will want to be able to get products quickly and easily.

The service delivery may be changed if a lot of complaints are made about:

  • Delivery times of products.
  • Where products can be sourced.
  • The way in which support can be accessed.
  • The times that support lines are open.

A change may be implemented to the service delivery if any of the above cause an issue for customers. This may be done through offering products and services in more retailers to make them easier to access, by opening support lines for longer hours and increasing delivery times for things which are sent to a client’s home.

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About the author

Megan Huziej

Megan has worked with CPD Online College since August 2020, she is in charge of content production, as well as planning, managing and delegating tasks. Megan works closely with Freelance Writers - Voice Artists - Companies and individuals to create the most appropriate and relevant content as well as also using and managing SEO. She gained her Business Administration Level 3 qualification over the duration of being at CPD Online College as well. Outside of work Megan loves to venture to different places and eateries as well as spending quality time with friends and family.

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