Customer service is tough.
You never know who is going to walk in and what they’ll need. Maybe they’ll be pleasant and polite. Or maybe they’ll be determined to be displeased.
We often hear “the customer is always right,” but anyone who has worked in customer service knows that isn’t the case. Regardless, you know that you have to do your best to help them because it will impact your business.
And as much as customer service is about handling issues, it’s also about handling people. You want to make your customers feel heard.
(And you want to do it without taking up a huge chunk of time, especially when you’re a smaller business with limited staff and 120 other things to get done that day.)
This is where a bit of preparation and a few flexible scripts will come in handy.
We’ve worked with hundreds of customer service teams, so we’ve seen our fair share of scenarios when it comes to communicating with customers and clients.
We’ll break down seven relatively simple customer service scenarios—and four trickier ones that would make most business owners throw up their hands in despair—and how to best handle each one. You’ll find customizable scripts for each scenario, step-by-step guides on what to do, and customer service tips to always keep in mind.
Everyday customer service scenarios:
Tricky customer service scenarios
- You’re in the wrong
- The customer is in the wrong
- The customer is angry
- The customer wants to speak to a manager
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Let’s start with the most common scenarios.
Everyday customer service scenarios
Scenario 1: An item isn’t available
This isn’t great for your business. Whether you’re the company owner or the person handling customers that day, nobody likes to say they don’t have an item.
So don’t say it. Not like that, at least. The best way to avoid a potential knee-jerk reaction from the customer is to put a positive spin on things rather than highlight the negative.
Let’s say a customer is looking for a particular item, but it’s on back-order until next month.
Rather than saying something like:
Try this instead:
Here, positive language replaces negative phrases, and emphasis is placed on the solution rather than the problem. More often than not, the solution is what the customer ultimately cares about at the end of the day.
Replacing negative phrases with positive language is a technique you can use in any customer service scenario. Take a minute before you respond to find places in your answer where there’s negative language, like “I can’t” or “We don’t do that.” See where you can substitute positive language instead and keep that in mind when you reply.
Sometimes an item won’t be available at all. Here’s how Skip Hop, a company that creates child care products, handled a potentially bad customer service scenario where they didn’t even sell the specific item the customer was looking for:
Rather than to throw their arms up and shrug because they don’t sell the diaper bag pouch separately, Skip Hop somehow found a way to still provide great customer service.
Scenario 2: You have to say no to the customer
As much as you’d like to help all your customers, sometimes you just have to say “No.”
For example, you may have a customer asking for a refund on an item that’s clearly been used.
Kindly, but firmly, let them know why you can’t fulfill their request.
Letting customers down easy can be tricky, but approaching it from an authentic place will go a long way. Let them know where you’re coming from, and most of the time, they’ll understand.
Learn about the best customer service software for small businesses.
Scenario 3: The customer asks you for a favor
It’s always good to be as understanding and accommodating as possible, as long as the favor is within reason. If a customer asks for extra pickles on the side of their burger, why not?
But sometimes your customers will ask you for special treatment that you just can’t allow. For example, a customer may ask to bring their dog into your shop even though you have a strict policy against pets in the store.
For these situations, try using this flexible script as a template:
For the dog example, your response could look something like:
Try to meet them halfway. A small pizza shop did this the best they could by offering cheese packets to a customer instead of giving her the parmesan shaker she had asked to take home:
The pizza shop didn’t allow the favor, but provided a good alternative. They did what they could, even though the customer ended up taking things into her own hands—literally.
Scenario 4: You don’t know the answer
We all know this feeling of dread.
But don’t sweat it. Good customer service isn’t about knowing everything. It’s about helping to make things better.
While it may be your first instinct, avoid saying “I don’t know.” It doesn’t help the customer in any way, and you run the risk of annoying them.
Instead, try repeating the question back to the customer and saying something like:
By repeating the question, you’re letting the customer know you are focusing on their needs. It doesn’t even matter that you don’t know the answer at the moment because you’ve assured them that you’re going to find it out.
When it comes to actually figuring out the answer, a collaboration-focused customer service tool like RingCentral really comes in handy. You can be on a call with a customer while messaging your colleague at the same time, providing the important details needed to find the answer.
Scenario 5: The customer receives a faulty product
Imagine you spend hours researching which specific product is right for you and finally make the purchase. You eagerly wait for it to be delivered, but when it finally arrives, it’s broken. How disappointing!
That’s exactly how your customers feel when they receive a faulty product. Showing empathy for their situation while explaining how you’re going to fix the problem is the best way forward here.
Make sure your response hits these three points:
- You empathize with the customer’s frustrating situation
- You explain what the problem may be (this is so they don’t think you just have bad products)
- You offer at least one immediate solution
Depending on your business, you might be able to offer multiple solutions. For example, you could offer a discount on the item or even a full refund. D’addario, a company focused on music accessories, went above and beyond when a customer told them he had broken a guitar string:
We’re all customers, and we can recognize that even the biggest companies make mistakes sometimes—it doesn’t have to be a customer retention killer. If you empathize with customers and make things right, that’s what they’ll remember.
Sometimes a product isn’t actually faulty, or it has complicated setup instructions that the customer can’t wrap their head around. If you have a video conferencing tool like RingCentral Video, the best way to avoid a lot of confusing back-and-forth is to hop on a call. You’ll be able to see what your customer is doing, making it much easier to help them fix the issue.
Scenario 6: The customer’s product arrives late
Just like when a customer receives a faulty product, it’s key to empathize with their situation and how frustrating it must be when your package is late. Lucky for you, just because the shipping is slow doesn’t mean that you can’t have agile customer service.
Let the customer know you’ve looked into it and give them a new arrival date so they don’t think their package has been lost.
Sometimes the package might not ever make it to the customer, or it’s so delayed that it’s best to just send a new one. That’s what clothing company Lands’ End did:
If you can make things right in the end, customers will usually look past the delay.
Are you practicing these customer service best practices?
Scenario 7: You need to transfer the customer
When a customer calls in for help and finally reaches someone to talk to, the last thing they want is to hear, “Please hold while we transfer you.” (Having an inbound calling strategy will help with this.)
They’ll think they’re just being passed around and will be kept on hold for ages. And many of them hate it:
But sometimes you really do need to transfer a customer to solve their problem, and it helps to explain that to them. Usually, customers will hear something like:
You can be as polite as you want, but no customer will be happy to hear that.
Try this instead:
While the customer might still be annoyed that they’re being transferred, they’ll be assured that you have their problem in mind. They can take comfort in knowing that the next person will have the expertise and access to solve their problem.
When you’re transferring a customer to someone else on your team, it’s best to give them a heads up about the customer’s situation. (Yay customer service teamwork.) By doing so, you’ll prepare your colleague for the call while improving your average handle time and saving your customer the hassle of having to explain their situation all over again.
You can avoid transferring customers altogether if you have a call routing or interactive voice response system. By setting up “answering rules” in whatever business phone service you’re using, you can make sure customer calls are routed directly to the person who’s best suited to answer their questions.
(It’s not just phone calls either. You might have a customer who messages you on Facebook or Instagram with a particularly complicated question, but you need to transfer it to a phone call or video call to sort it out. This is where omnichannel customer service a social media-friendly customer service app is important.)
Okay. Now let’s take a look at a few situations that will be more challenging.
Tricky customer service scenarios
Scenario 8: You’re in the wrong
There will be times when you or someone on your team makes a mistake. It just happens. The best way to communicate in these customer service scenarios is to:
- Acknowledge your mistake and apologize
- Explain how you’re solving the problem
- Let them know you’ll keep them updated
- Follow up when the issue is resolved
That’s it. It’s not something that requires any special customer service skill. Here’s what that sounds like:
Using this script as a template, you’ll be able to respond to any situation.
Most of the time, customers will be understanding if they can see you’re being genuine and working to solve the problem.
Once the issue is resolved, do something extra as a nice gesture since you were in the wrong. This could be a discount or even a freebie. Longhorn Steakhouse was in the wrong when they overcooked a customer’s steak, though they didn’t even realize it at first because she didn’t say anything. When a busboy noticed she wasn’t eating her food, the manager had a new steak cooked for her. He didn’t stop with just that though:
Being in the wrong isn’t a death sentence for your company’s relationship with a customer. The situation can almost always be salvaged, and it’s an opportunity to show how great your customer service really is. (Here are a few great customer service stories.)
Learn about important customer service KPIs to track.
Scenario 9: The customer is in the wrong
Customers can be in the wrong too. Take this one woman, for instance:
We all mess up from time to time. The last thing you want to do is to make a big deal out of it and make your customer feel stupid.
Here’s a script you can work with to gently deal with this situation:
Instead of focusing on who made the mistake, focus on the problem itself and how to solve it. The customer will be relieved that the heat has been taken off them and that the issue is being resolved.
For the ice cream cake fiasco, it would sound something like:
Scenario 10: The customer is angry
This is when you need to tread more carefully. Sometimes a customer’s anger is unjustified, but other times they have a fair reason to be upset. Either way, you want to do these four things:
- Be apologetic: Apologize and be sincere about it. Say the actual words “I’m sorry,” even if the situation isn’t your fault. (Learn how to apologize to customers with this three-step plan.)
- Sympathize: A lot of the time, angry customers just want to hear that someone empathizes with their situation and can understand why they’re feeling this way. Even if you don’t actually understand where they’re coming from, just imagine a time when you were angry and how you would have wanted to be treated. A simple phrase like “I understand how upsetting this must be for you” can go a long way. It’ll make the customer feel like you’re on their side, which will help calm them down.
- Accept responsibility: Trying to dodge responsibility for an issue is the worst way to deal with an angry customer. Even if it wasn’t your fault, you need to accept responsibility for the customer’s unhappiness. It doesn’t mean you did something wrong. It just means that you are handling the situation and that the customer has someone to help them solve the problem.
- Figure out how to help: When a customer is angry, there are two issues to fix. The actual problem itself and how the customer is feeling. A lot of the time, you can solve the problem pretty quickly, whether it’s placing a replacement order or providing a full refund plus a credit. Then you need to solve the issue of how the customer is feeling and make sure they leave calm and happy.
In a high-stakes customer service scenario, what you say will vary depending on how angry the customer is and what actually happened. Here’s a loose script to use as a template:
Angry customers are challenging to handle. Even if you do everything right, some will still be upset. All you can do is to keep calm and try your best to help. (Learn more about how to deal with angry customers.)
Scenario 11: The customer wants to speak to a manager
Despite your best efforts to solve a problem, some customers will still demand to speak to a manager.
When you’re handling difficult customers for your own company, calmly let them know that you’re in charge and suggest a few different ways you can solve the problem for them. Let them decide how they want to move forward.
By letting the customer choose between options, you’re giving them a sense of control in the situation, which may help calm them down.
If someone else is handling customer service, there are a few different ways to deal with someone asking for the manager.
If a customer representative has made a mistake (hey, it happens), pass the customer on to a manager. The customer has lost trust in the rep, so it’s best to have them talk to someone new.
Sometimes no mistakes have been made, and the customer is only asking to speak to a manager because they don’t like the first response they’ve been given. If that’s the case, speak with authority and say:
If the customer continues to insist they speak to a manager, just let them in order to deescalate the situation. Once the customer hears the same response again, they’ll likely accept that nothing more can be done.
Every customer service scenario is a conversation
Customer service boils down to two people working together to solve a problem. It’s a conversation, not just a cold reciting of prepared scripts and company procedures.
Talk to your customers, not at them, and you can’t go wrong.
Originally published Jun 01, 2020, updated Jul 01, 2022