Customer Service 101: Dealing with Malcontents and Agitators

I once had a restaurateur, owner of one of most successful restaurants in town,  tell me that one of the best things he did was to ask some customers not to come back. These customers would frequent his restaurant, but all they did was to bring grief to the waiters, the cooks and the management. Nothing was every right for them, and they would have at least a few complaints every time they came. Finally, the owner decided that these customers were not a good fit for the restaurant, and he strongly suggested to them that they should find a new place to eat and drink. The wait staff was happy; the cooks were happy and his management team was also happy.
The traditional customer service view is to do anything reasonable to make customers happy. This makes sense, and in our experience 80% of complaints, if handled appropriately, lead to future orders and retained customers.
But, what about the customers best described as malcontents or agitators? These are not your run-of-the-mill customers with legitimate concerns. Provide a reasonable solution for most customers, and they will accept it and move on.
unhappy face
Agitators and malcontents, however, have the following characteristics:

  1. Repeated complaints about relatively minor issues
  2. An unwillingness to accept reasonable solutions to their issue
  3. Using language and body language that is confrontational
  4. Framing their complaint as an us-versus-them battle
  5. Disrespecting low-level staff
  6. Trying to convince others to join “their side”
  7. Bullying behavior

After years of dealing with thousands of customers at Kona Impact, I’ve learned to differentiate between legitimate, solution-oriented complaints and malcontents who are just trying to create confrontation. We encounter maybe two or three malcontents a year. I strongly suspect that the malcontents have fairly persistent and deep-rooted personality issues, and I am fairly certain they are that way with many businesses, colleagues and friends. My job is not to try and fix their problems.
So, what can you do when you encounter the agitators and malcontents in business? The first thing is to do all you can to provide top-notch customer service: 1) listen to the customer, 2) empathize, 3) offer reasonable solutions, 4) keep calm and use non-aggressive language, spoken in a calm, measured way, and 5) make sure you follow through if do come to a consensus about how to solve the problem This should solve 95%+ of your customer service issues.
If you have come across a true malcontent and agitator and have done all you can, here’s what you can do:

  1. Agree to disagree and leave it at that. Accept that you will never get a win-win solution.
  2. Be mindful of any need you have to “win” or “have the last word”. That is the strategy of a malcontent, so let them “win” and “have the last word”.
  3. If you determine the situation is intractable and the person is causing undue stress for you or your business, tell he customer he or she will need to find a new provider.
  4. Tell the customer that his or her behavior is not acceptable at your establishment if he or she is disrespectful or disruptive.
  5. Do all you can to remain calm, resolute and polite. Agitators will feed off your reactions.
  6. If you believe the situation has become unsafe, it’s time to issue a no trespass order or call the police. Another option is a restraining order.

It’s never enjoyable to deal with someone who you cannot make happy no matter what you do. Fortunately, this is a very small number of people.