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How to Answer The "Difficult Customer" Question

Customer service jobs are all about what? You guessed it: great customer service. It's not uncommon for a customer to approach an employee or call a help center expecting them to solve a problem. But sometimes, that customer will already be dissatisfied or angry. If you’re a customer service employee, the way you conduct yourself in that moment is important, not only for being successful in your current job, but also for interviewing for other customer service jobs in the future.

The hardest question to answer in a job interview for a customer service position is usually related to how you deal with angry customers. Your answer highlights your interpersonal abilities and your professionalism in high-stress situations—both of which are essential customer service skills. 

Interview questions on problem-solving and diffusing tense situations are highly relevant for customer service jobs. So we’re going to break down the “how do you deal with an angry customer” interview question for you, review how to answer questions in a job interview, and look at some sample answers for interviews.

What types of customer service interview questions could you encounter?

Employers might ask different types of questions in order to better understand your experiences in customer service, especially when it comes to working with difficult customers. More specifically, employers might ask a behavioral interview question, which requires you to share how you’ve responded to situations in the past that would be similar to what you might encounter at the new job. A behavioral interview question about difficult customers might sound like one of the following:

  • Tell me about a time you had to deal with an angry customer.

  • Describe a time you had to deal with a difficult customer and how you handled the situation.

  • How do you handle difficult customers? Share a recent example.

Another popular interview strategy is the situational interview question. The employer will present a hypothetical situation or problem and ask you to talk about the actions you would take to solve it. Examples of situational questions include:

  • Tell me how you would respond if an angry customer walked into the store asking for a refund, but they didn’t have a receipt for her purchase.

  • If a customer demanded to speak to the manager, but you knew the manager was unavailable, what would you do?

Even if a prospective employer doesn’t explicitly ask a situational or behavioral question about your experience in resolving conflicts with customers, you might want to talk about it anyway, especially if they ask a more general interview question about difficult situations you’ve faced at work. Some of these more general questions for interviewing include:

  • Describe a difficult task you were faced with and how you addressed it.

  • What areas of customer service have you had experience in?

How NOT to answer the difficult customer question

It might be tempting to skirt past the difficult customer question with a generic answer that suggests you don’t have a lot of experience in conflict resolution. However, this is more likely to reflect poorly on you as an applicant or suggest that you aren’t qualified for the job. So you’ll want to avoid answers like:

  • "I don't like when people are mean to me so I avoid conflict at all costs. I would let my boss handle it."

  • "This would be my first job so I'm not sure how I would handle it. But as they say, the customer is always right, so whatever they want I would give them."

  • “I had a customer call in and they were furious. I wasn’t sure what to do so I just hung up on them and hoped they didn’t call back.”

And while a little humor can be fine in a job interview, you probably don’t want to lean too heavily on it for the difficult customer question. Don’t give an answer like this one.

  • "I had a difficult customer one time. They were my first one and my last one. Do you see these muscles? Welcome to the gun show."

Finally, you should never lie during an interview. This almost always backfires, whether the interviewer figures out that you’re lying right away or asks follow-up questions that you can’t answer. If you really haven’t had any formal customer service jobs before, think of a similar situation in which you successfully handled conflict with someone through school activities, summer jobs, volunteering, freelancing or other full-time work. Chances are, you already have the transferable skills for customer service. 

So how DO you answer, “How did you handle a difficult situation or customer?”

The best way for answering is to use the STAR method. It’s a storytelling formula for answering situational and behavioral interview questions. For customer service jobs, it allows you to show the interviewer you have the people skills and problem-solving skills needed to help satisfy the customer and reflect well on your company. The STAR method involves the following steps:

  1. Situation: Describe the context for your story. Where did the situation take place, who were the people involved and what was the problem at hand? Be as specific as possible.

  2. Task: Describe your role in the situation. What were you responsible for? Were you a cashier, customer service rep, manager, etc.? 

  3. Action: Explain what you did to solve the problem. Talk about the steps you took, what you said to the customer, how you conducted yourself and what you recommended as the solution.

  4. Result: Describe the outcome. How did the customer respond? Was there any tangible resolution (such as the customer purchasing a different product or leaving a positive review)? 

You should be able to use the STAR method to answer this question in a story that takes one to two minutes. That will be enough time to give breadth and depth to your answer about dealing with difficult customers, without losing the interviewer’s interest. 

“Tell me about a situation where you had to solve a difficult problem” example

Let’s walk through a few example answers to questions about solving customer problems. Using the STAR method, you can tell a story about a time when you had to deal with an angry customer in person.

  • Situation: "At my last job, a customer came in cursing and yelling—the works. She was complaining about an item she wanted to return, but she didn't have her receipt.”

  • Task: “I was the rep working at the counter that day, so I was responsible for handling customer inquiries and returns. I knew the customer’s reaction was out of frustration, so I didn't take it personally and I made sure she knew her concerns were being heard.”

  • Action: “I listened carefully and apologized. I explained that I wasn't able to give her a cash refund without the receipt due to the company’s policy, but that I could allow her to have the same amount in store credit. I also recommended a replacement product that would better suit her needs and was similarly priced to the old product.”

  • Result: “The customer was satisfied with the store credit, and she used it to purchase the replacement product that I recommended. It ended up being a win-win situation for everyone."

This answer proves that you can assess the situation, fix the problem and have both the customer and the employer come out on top. 

Here’s another sample answer for customer service jobs that work remotely.

  • Situation: "While working for ABC Furniture Company, I received a phone call from a customer who was angry because the sofa he wanted to order was out of stock.”

  • Task: “I was the rep handling the hotline for customer inquiries. I understood the customer’s frustration, and I apologized for the inconvenience.”

  • Action: “I looked up the inventory in the company database. I explained to the customer that his desired sofa would be out-of-stock for another two weeks. So I offered two potential solutions. My first solution was that we could send a similar sofa with his preferred color within the next day. The second solution was that we could schedule a delivery in two weeks when the sofa with his preferred color and model was available, and also send him two matching throw pillows and a blanket for free due to the inconvenience.”

  • Result: “The customer appreciated that he had a choice in what to do, and he decided to wait the extra two weeks for his preferred sofa. The sofa and extra items were delivered within the two-week time frame, and he gave us a five-star review for service on his post-purchase customer satisfaction form."

Put your best foot forward in your customer service interview

While you won’t know for sure every interview question you might be asked, you also don’t want to be caught off guard with the question about dealing with angry customers. It helps to prepare an answer in advance, practice it a few times so it feels natural and think of some follow-up questions the interviewer might ask. Happy job hunting!

Alex Woodward |
Alex is a Growth Marketing Manager at Snagajob, where she works with sales to help connect businesses with the right workers. Her first hourly job was as a barista at Caribou Coffee.