It’s a well-known fact that if you work in retail, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with difficult customers, especially during the holidays.

And while some retail tasks, such as folding, might be mindless and dealt with easily, handling difficult customers during the holiday rush – well, that is an art.

Dealing with difficult customers is not a skill that comes naturally to most people. As a manager or small business owner, you should never expect your new hires to know what to do in a situation where a customer is upset, especially if that employee is seasonal. Even if they can handle such a situation with self-assurance, your new hire still may not be able to turn the situation around in a way that is favorable for your business. Instead, you should train employees on how you would handle the situation. Though no two customers are exactly alike, difficult customers do usually share distinct traits and fall into one of the following 5. So, keep reading for tips on how to deal with the 5 most common types of difficult customers, and to make sure that you — as well as your employees — are able to handle any sticky holiday situation you are dealt.

1. The Needy Customer

Characteristics: Needy customers come in a variety of forms. Some will require boatloads of your advice and attention during the holiday season. Others will ask you to run to the back 40 times to check if you have an item in a different style or color. You’ll easily recognize a needy customer by the amount of time they suck from you.

Why they’re a problem: The needy customer takes time away from other day-to-day tasks that need to get done, not to mention the insane holiday to-do list you also have. On a slow day, you wouldn’t think twice about dedicating more time to your customers. But when your store is slammed, and short on staff, you need to be able to juggle multiple tasks while focusing on other customers as well.

Additionally, this type of difficult customer can be very frustrating for retail employees because they can ask staff to do things that are fairly demoralizing. For example, they might insist that you go to the back to check for something you already told them definitely isn’t there.

The fix: During busy holiday hours, set the precedent for needy customers by verbally letting them know that you are still committed to them, despite the hustle and bustle in your store. Try using phrases that convey that you will get back to them as soon as physically possible. Here are a few to try out:

  • “Let’s have you try this shirt on and see how it fits. I have to go help X, but I’ll be back right after to help you decide.”
  • “These are all great choices! I’m going to let you think about these options while I run and help X customer. I’ll be back in five minutes to see what else you need.”


SEE ALSO: 26 How to Keep Your Customer Retention Rate High

You can also pass them off to one of the other employees if they have the time and aren’t helping other customers. Just make sure that it is clear to the customer that you aren’t doing this because you don’t want to help them, but because you simply don’t have the time. Here are a few phrases you can try on for size:

  • “I’m so sorry, but I’m busy helping another customer. But my colleague X is amazing and will be happy to help you. I promise you’re in great hands!”
  • “I have to go help X customer. I’ll be back right after to help you. If you have any questions while I’m busy, please ask one of my coworkers. They can help you out. Have an amazing holiday!”


customers laughing at juice bar - how to deal with difficult customers

2. The Customer with the Out-of-Control Kids

Characteristics: We are all familiar with dealing with this difficult customer. It’s the customer whose kids are running around your store being disruptive. What isn’t necessarily obvious is that there are two types of children possible in this scenario:

  • The kids who are just being kids. In my experience, this is the case with 99 percent of all problems involving youth in a store. Shopping with parents can be a boring experience for children, and often, they’re just trying to entertain themselves.
  • The other one percent of difficult children are kids who are truly destructive when bored and simply don’t listen. Though not common, it is every retailer’s worst nightmare so we won’t stray away from addressing it.


Why they’re a problem: Typically a rambunctious child (regardless of which category they fall into) can distract other shoppers and affect their experience of your story in a negative way. It might not be purposeful, but it is problematic. This type of difficult customer, those with challenging children, can result in damages and a loss in sales.

The fix: The fix for the 99 percent of children who are just bored is fairly easy. For stores that are targeted at families or parents, all you have to do is set up a station with a few small toys. These stations will typically entertain a child for the amount time a parent needs to shop. Trust me. Parents know when their kids are difficult in stores and will typically do their best to get in and out of the store before their child can cause a problem that’s embarrassing for them. Your job is to make it as easy as possible for that parent.

For the other one percent of problems caused by children, at the end of the day, you will have to decide if keeping the parent in the store is worth the destruction. How much is the parent spending? Are there other customers in the store whom you could lose?

If you decide that the child needs to leave, the first thing you must do is give the parent a warning. Something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry to ask this, but could you please calm your child down? They’re quite disruptive, and some of the other customers have complained. If they can’t calm down we’ll have to ask you to leave the store.”

If the first warning doesn’t work, follow up with the parent by saying, “I’m sorry, but I have to ask you to have your child leave the store. Could someone else watch them? Perhaps you could come back at a later time? I’m more than happy to ring up what you already have if you’d like.”

Be as polite as possible, and don’t be surprised if the parent gets upset with you and tells you they will never return. It’s an embarrassing situation for them. Always remain respectful, polite, and empathetic. Because remember, if there are other customers in the store that think you handled the situation poorly, that can also negatively affect your business.

SEE ALSO: 26 Inexpensive Customer Appreciation Day Ideas

3. The Abusive Customer

Characteristics: The abusive customer will check off at least one of the following:

  • Makes verbal personal attacks on your employees or customers. There’s rude, and then there’s cruel.
  • Sexually harasses your employees or customers.
  • Physically assaults your staff or customers.


Why they’re a problem: Well, this is obvious one. They’re creating an unsafe environment for everyone in the store. You especially don’t want this during the busy holiday cheer!

The Fix: “Fire” this customer. Ask them to leave the store, potentially even ban them from returning. If the customer will not listen to you, or the level of violence escalates, call security or the police.

4. The Angry Customer

Characteristics: The classic difficult customer is the angry customer — because not everyone understands holiday cheer. They usually come into your store already upset – a broken product perhaps, or a poor interaction with your website. However, a customer may also become disgruntled while in your store. It’s important to learn how to properly deal with angry customers because many of the other types of difficult customers on this list can become angry customers when not handled correctly.

Why they’re a problem: When not adequately dealt with, an angry customer will often never return. Also, an angry customer can often turn into abusive customers and be disruptive towards others in your store.

The fix: The angry customer is the hardest to fix, so hang in here with me. And remember that an angry customer is actually giving your brand a second chance to get things right. By working hard to fix the problem, you can repair your customer’s relationship with your brand. A customer who doesn’t want to have their relationship fixed will just not show up. But one that stays to talk things out is willing to remedy the situation.

First, a salesperson needs to remain calm, and practice their active listening skills. Paying attention to what the customer is saying will help you ignore your own anger or fear and allow you to concentrate on the task at hand.

Actively listening to a customer has additional benefits as well. First, listening to the customer ensures that you’ll be able to figure out exactly what the problem is so you can truly help your customer. Often, upset customers just want their story heard. They’ve had a frustrating time with something and they want to vent. By listening, you allow the customer to express their feelings, you become more familiar with the problem, and you give yourself time to figure out a solution.

When the customer is done expressing their concerns, offer them your apology and let them know you’re going to do your best to make things right in their eyes. Set about solving the problem right away. That means, if you don’t need to call over the manager, don’t do it. Whatever you can do to expedite the problem, do it. This is your chance to turn an unhappy customer into a brand ambassador.

Finally, go above and beyond for them. If you have to replace a product and you have a choice between free 7-day shipping and free 2-day, give them the 2-day. If you can give them a refund on the product they currently have, and give them a discount on a replacement item, do it. Customers usually get the angriest when they think a business doesn’t care. It’s your job to prove them wrong.

small business employee helping a customer - how to deal with difficult customers

5. The Discount-Obsessed Customer

Characteristics: This is the customer that will attempt to get discounts on everything. They will try and combine discounts and promotions, attempt to get a student discount with an expired I.D., and even insist on a discount when there are none available to give. We know you understand the pressures (and expense) of holiday purchases, but you also need to be able to make a profit. Are we right?

Why they’re a problem: This is a problem because it can really eat into your bottom line. Additionally, this customer is often known for proudly sharing how to “get around” your prices with other customers. Next thing you know, you’re losing ground on how many people pay full price. And, as outlined above, this customer runs the risk of becoming the angry customer.

The fix: First, you have to recognize that a discount-obsessed customer doesn’t always value the experience your store gives. We also live in a day and age where you can always get something cheaper online or at another store. So very often, customers are conditioned to expect more in the way of discounts. So if you can’t match their expectations in the way of discounts, up your customer service game to ensure that the experience they receive at your business can’t be matched elsewhere.

Do some thinking and figure out what’s lacking in your customer experience or simply what can be improved. If you can give them an experience they can’t get anywhere else, they’ll learn to pay the price you ask.

Second, your discount-obsessed customer may have become this way because you trained them to expect not to pay full price for your products. Do you frequently have promotional sales? Do you allow for coupon stacking? Do you have one particular associate that is known for knocking down prices at the register? It’s up to you to weed through your in-store experience and promotions to determine what exactly the cause might be. It might be that you just have a few customers that expect too much. But it also might be that you created an atmosphere where more is expected.

At the end of the day, you may not be able to retrain your discount-obsessed customer. They’re the hardest of the difficult customers to deal with. However, at the very least, you can learn from them and work to give other customers an invaluable experience without training them to expect additional discounts.

Learning how to deal with difficult customers — especially during the holidays — and learning the types of difficult customers you will encounter might seem like unnecessary work. After all, why can’t customers just behave? The answer to this is human nature — just how people are flawed, so too are customers. So instead of bemoaning the extra work, be thankful for your customers. Perfect or not, your customers are the bedrock of your business. For that reason alone, they are worth the time and energy.

Cara Wood headshot

Cara Wood

Cara Wood is a marketing associate at Capterra and a graduate of Mary Washington. She's the author of Capterra's retail tech blog. When she's not hard at work at Capterra, she can be found horseback riding, reading, and generally enjoying life.