Knowing how to handle complaints appropriately takes practice and professionalism. Here are some tips on how to deal with difficult customers.

Stay calm and in control

While it can be hard to stay calm when someone is criticising you or your business, it’s important you that do. Try not to take it personally. Getting frustrated may provoke an argument and is not likely to produce a positive outcome for you or the customer.

Speak to the customer in a quiet and polite manner, stay professional and in control. This will help you manage the situation. Counter their aggression with calm.


Give the customer your attention and listen – really listen – to what they have to say.

Don’t interrupt or talk over them. Find out what they are unhappy about and what outcome they are seeking. Quite often anger can stem from feeling like you are not being heard, so give the customer the opportunity to vent their frustrations.

That said, make it clear to the customer that bad language, personal attacks and threats of violence will not be tolerated. If, for example, the customer is swearing, firmly and politely ask them to stop. If they keep doing it, warn them that you will finish the conversation if they continue.


Try to empathise and consider the situation of the customer. Tell the customer clearly and respectfully what you can and can’t offer them in the way of solutions. Where possible, give them options. For example, if a customer is unhappy with a meal they have been served in your restaurant you may choose:

  • To offer them a replacement meal
  • To offer an alternate meal choice
  • To provide some kind of added extra, like a complimentary glass of wine
  • To not charge them for the meal
  • Some combination of the above.

Ensure you and your team are aware of the rights of the consumer, and your obligations as a business owner under Australian Consumer Law. It may help leave a copy of the guidelines in the staffroom so your team can refer to when dealing with customer complaints.

We’ve been told ‘the customer is always right,’ but this isn’t always the case. As a business owner, try to assess the circumstances of each customer’s complaint on a case-by-case basis. Negotiate with them in the hope of reaching a fair outcome that everyone is satisfied with. Don’t leave emails, phone calls, or messages on social media unaddressed. Aim to resolve the issue as soon as possible. Delays may further aggravate the situation.

Poor online reviews and complaints

Respond quickly and politely. Don’t repeat back the negative element of the review, instead repeat back any positive elements. Apologise that your customer had a bad experience and thank them for letting you know. Reach out to them to provide an email address or go to a messaging platform so you can take your discussion onto a private platform.  Then send them an email asking for the best number to call them on and a time to call, or for more details about their issue so you can address it. Try to resolve their issue in such a way they end up being a raving fan and are willing to change their online review of their own accord.  When it comes to online complaints, ensure your staff are aware of an escalation process and don’t respond unless you’re confident they know how to handle a complaint effectively.

Have systems in place

Dealing with difficult customers is something all businesses face. Having systems in place to deal with them will help you to achieve better outcomes. This should include guidelines on what steps staff should follow. Staff should be aware of what actions are approved, what resolutions are available, and who to escalate a complaint to if appropriate. The manager on a shift may be the person who deals with all complaints. When the manager isn’t there, the assistant manager may step in to oversee a difficult customer, instead of the casual staff.

Your systems should also be supported with training, for example, try role playing so your team can practice handling difficult customers. Staff that are educated, informed and supported by management will be more confident in dealing with difficult customers than those who aren’t.

Consider what can be learned from the situation

While dealing with difficult customers can be stressful, it can also be an opportunity to learn. Consider what the customer’s issue was, and how it was handled and resolved. Was there anything that was done well? Could you do anything better? These learnings can be discussed as a team, brainstorming ways to better manage the experience for all customers in the future.