Chocolate Pillow | The Myth of the Difficult Customer
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The Myth of the Difficult Customer

24 Jan The Myth of the Difficult Customer

Many of you will be in a position to understand the ‘difficult’ customer and just how draining they can be; but does such a thing as the ‘Difficult Customer’ actually exist or is this just a Customer Service Myth?

I recently had cause to think about this in a fair amount of depth and to take a look at what actually makes a customer become labelled as ‘difficult’ so I thought back to some of the guests I would label as ‘Difficult’ and spend some time analysing the behaviour; as a result I began realising that the difficult part is actually me, and not the guest!


Example 1

Mr Bloggs arrives; he booked on advance purchase rate 3 weeks ago but the payment for his stay had not been processed. This is explained and major grumblings and a variety of shouting levels ensues with the guest adamant he has paid. Everything is proven to him and explained to him, but he still demands General Manager details and refuses to pay for the room. [/box]

Okay, so this was a situation that escalated quickly and unnecessarily – for me it was a simple case that he had booked, and someone had overlooked processing the deposit; nothing more to it.  But he made a massive issue out of it – it resulted in free stays, free upgrades and a variety of stuff being thrown at him to placate him (I am still slightly bitter about this guy to be fair)!  But taking a different perspective explains a few things.  Most people would accept that there was an error, and pay there and then and move on, however the reaction seemed massively overzealous compared to similar situations.  Now for the psychobabble:

When something happens, it is expected by everyone that a previous set pattern of events will be followed.  This is known as a Schema.  Schema’s exist for almost everything, it is a method of understanding and anticipating the world around us.  For example, you have a standard schema for getting in to a car and driving, or for getting on to a bus, or for baking a cake – you follow a set of internal instructions; if something then challenges that schema, you get uncomfortable.  For example, you get in the car, and start the engine which always ticks over first time.  Then one day you get in and it doesn’t start straight away, however you still go to put it in gear and accelerate without even thinking – your schema has now been challenged and it makes you feel uneasy; another common analogy is that of tying your shoelaces or putting on a coat (just imagine how difficult it suddenly becomes if you are faced with laces that are half tied or a coat that is inside out and buttoned up; a simple action becomes much more difficult and you are forced to adapt and cope) – to simplify a Schema is an almost unconscious expectation of how things happen.  It is important to also understand that if a schema is broken then you need to adapt quickly and cope with the situation – if you have encountered a similar situation before, then you can usually ‘reset’ the situation in some way to create a situation you have a schema for – in example, having half tied shoelaces; it is easier to untie them and then start from fresh than it is to try and tie them from their half-done state.  This is because you cope by moving to the easiest schema to fit the situation – but what if no relevant schema exists?

Now in context – this guest had a standard schema that said he should arrive, check in and not have to give his card information.  This was broken almost instantly.  So immediately the guest feels uncomfortable because the standard schema he has is no longer in force; he is unfamiliar territory and having to rely on honesty of others.  His system for arrival has been blown away and if he has never faced this before he has no established pattern for coping with or understanding what is occurring.  Whilst I am explaining, he is trying to make sense of everything, but nothing is matching an existing schema of information so he is now internally, subconsciously, trying to understand what is happening, how to adjust and how to deal with a socially awkward situation.  As no schema exists, he has to fall back on the instinctive fight or flight response, which in this case was fight – he believed and had very strong conviction that he was correct and that he had paid, after all that is what it said when he booked.  Now he is met by a stranger demanding money from him in an unfamiliar location and after a full day of travelling and work; no wonder he got annoyed!

So in this case, was the customer difficult?  No!  It was my interpretation that made him difficult.  I could have done more to soften the blow, or dealt with this in a different way (adjusted my own schema for arrival) and as a result have done so.

To compound the situation further there are 2 issues of Projection and Transference:

Projection is where you attribute the thoughts and feeling you feel you should be suppressing, on to someone else.  For example if you are angry with someone or dislike them, then you attribute your emotions to them when they interact with you; therefore you interpret them as being angry or disliking you, even though it may not be the case.  In this case, the guest was probably annoyed at the situation and the failing making him feel angry or aggressive, which he then projected meaning that everything I said was interpreted as angry or aggressive even though the opposite was true (3 other staff in the area shook my hand for standing there and taking the abuse without batting an eyelid and still smiling!).

Transference occurs when a person takes the perceptions and expectations of one person and projects these onto another person. They then interact with the other person as if the other person is that transferred pattern.  So in this instance the guest would probably have seen me as someone who challenges their perception or authority and therefore they react to me in the same way that they do with everyone who represents the same challenge.


It seems strange to think of this as actually being something wrong with the way that I interpreted it, however that is down to my own social positioning and expectation – I am the person in authority and I am the person who knows what I am talking about, so why should I be challenged? – the guest challenged my Schema of arrival; I transferred on to them every previous screaming guest; I projected my emotions on to them and probably misinterpreted things… so we are both as guilty as each other.  It is only my perception, my understanding and my previous experiences that dictate that the customer was ‘difficult’ but in fairness, they were only making a point, and I overcomplicated things.

So do difficult customers or guests truly exist, or am I the problem?  Sometimes the best ting to do is be retrospective in complaint handling and actually analyse what happened when interacting with the guest to realise that, no, they were not difficult or a problem, perhaps it was actually me!  Hard to understand, hard to admit and almost impossible to accept!


Resources, information and further reading at


Matt Shiells-Jones

Husband, Author, Hotel Manager and ambitious 'old cat lady'

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