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25 conflict resolution strategies for customer service


The Team at CallMiner

July 28, 2022

25 conflict resolution strategies for customer service
25 conflict resolution strategies for customer service

Given the often-hectic nature of call-based customer support, it is not at all uncommon for conflicts to arise with confused or otherwise frustrated customers. Companies with effective strategies for handling these situations and skilled customer service agents capable of diffusing tension can turn difficult customer interactions into opportunities to exceed expectations, influence the customer’s perception of their business, and improve the customer experience to boost customer retention.

The most successful companies have solutions in place for monitoring customer interactions and analyzing sentiment. By measuring results and identifying the tactics that work to achieve positive outcomes from difficult customer situations, businesses can fine-tune their approach to conflict resolution to increase the odds of turning negatives into positives with each difficult situation.

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Customer service agents looking to amicably resolve issues that spring up with difficult customers need to pull from time-tested conflict-resolution techniques on the fly. The best agents are able to keep their own emotions under control while effectively dissolving tension between themselves and upset customers, but even the best perform better with clear strategies they can leverage.

What are conflict resolution strategies for customer service?

Conflict is a disagreement between two parties (two individuals, a customer and a company, etc.). It happens when two parties have divergent perspectives, ideas, or opinions and can’t agree on an outcome or next best action. Conflict resolution means solving the problem at hand and deciding on an outcome or action that both parties agree to. In some cases, conflict resolution involves the two parties agreeing to disagree. Conflict resolution strategies for customer service are approaches to negotiating and reducing the tension between a customer and the company in effort to come to an amicable solution that satisfies both the customer and the company.

In customer service, conflicts often arise from customer dissatisfaction. Customers may be frustrated because they’re having a problem with a product or service. They may be angry because they’ve been in touch with customer service several times and still don’t have a solution to their problem. Customers may be upset because the company’s customer support team promised them a solution in a previous interaction but did not follow through. Conflict can arise from any of these circumstances (among others) as customers become increasingly frustrated.

Customer support representatives armed with effective conflict resolution strategies are skilled at diffusing these situations, calming customers down, and working out a solution that addresses the customer’s problem. Note that the outcome doesn’t necessarily require “fixing” the problem directly, as that may not always be possible. Instead, other solutions, such as a refund or replacement product, can be used to resolve conflicts, as long as the solution is acceptable to both parties.

How people approach conflict: The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model

The Thomas-Kilmann model is a framework that describes the primary ways most people manage conflicts. According to Management Weekly, this model assumes two main dimensions or approaches to conflict resolution:

  • Assertiveness — People tend to be assertive when they fear losing something of value or feel that their interests are threatened.
  • Cooperativeness — People take a cooperative approach to conflict resolution when their aim is to accommodate the other party’s interests.

The degree to which each of these approaches is employed by one or both parties' results in five main strategies commonly used in managing conflict. The Participation Company describes the five conflict resolution strategies from the Thomas-Kilmann model, including:

  • Avoiding (low assertiveness, low cooperativeness) — when the two parties don’t acknowledge the conflict. This often occurs when one or both parties are uncomfortable with conflict. This strategy does not lead to a resolution and is generally unproductive. In fact, the conflict can escalate over time when it’s avoided.
  • Competing (high assertiveness, low cooperativeness) — when two parties engage in a conflict with the intention to win. This conflict resolution strategy involves one side winning and the other losing. The strategy employed in sports, it’s not ideal for customer service conflict resolution or conflict resolution in the workplace.
  • Accommodating (low assertiveness, high cooperativeness) — when one party concedes to the other, giving in to the demand of the other party to avoid or resolve the conflict. This conflict resolution strategy can lead to unresolved issues, with further conflict arising later.
  • Collaborating (high assertiveness, high cooperativeness) — when both parties engage in a discussion to develop a solution that’s agreeable to all involved. This is an effective conflict resolution strategy that can produce new ideas and generally results in long-term resolution.
  • Compromising (medium assertiveness, medium cooperativeness) — when both parties lower their expectations or give up something that they want to come to an agreeable solution. When this conflict resolution strategy is used, neither party “wins” or gets everything that they want. However, it does often result in long-term conflict resolution.

Within these approaches, there are many strategies that customer service representatives can employ to work towards collaboration or compromise. When collaboration or compromise are not achievable, companies commonly take the accommodating approach to ensure customer satisfaction. The most effective way to approach a conflict often depends on where the customer falls on the assertiveness and cooperativeness scales. However, because customers can become more or less assertive and more or less cooperative over time, agents often need to use several techniques to resolve conflicts.

Read on to learn some of the best conflict resolution strategies and ideas that agents can implement on the job:

Conflict resolution strategies for customer service

1. Reassure frustrated customers that they are fully understood.

Everyone wants to be understood, particularly when they’re interacting with customer service agents. When a customer doesn’t feel as though you understand their problem or concern, they are likely to become increasingly assertive and less cooperative.

“Whether or not you agree with an agitated customer isn’t really important. To de-escalate someone who’s ineffectively expressing anger, you’ll need to be kind and respectful to them. Tell them you hear what they’re saying, even if it doesn’t really make sense to you. Remember, if they are emotional they are probably not being totally logical at that moment.” – Vanessa Rose, Customer Service Conflict Resolution: A Step-by-Step Guide, Pollack Peacebuilding Systems; Twitter: @PollackPeace

2. Be sure to apologize.

Apologies go a long way in customer service. Even if your company didn’t do anything wrong, apologize for the inconvenience and frustration the customer is experiencing.

“Even if you were not at fault, after empathizing with the customer, you should be able to sincerely apologize. Nobody likes being inconvenienced; you should understand that. It’s like replying to a negative review IRL.” – Customer Service Roleplaying Scenarios, Broadly; Twitter: @getbroadly

3. Practice intent listening when interacting with customers.

In order to understand the customer’s problem and empathize with them, agents first must listen carefully without interrupting.

“When customers talk, listen to them carefully rather than interrupting. Summarize the main point, once your customer has stopped talking. This will help both of you to work together on a solution. Set a time limit and end the interaction, when the customer refuses to act constructively. Listen for understanding, as irate callers just want someone to listen to their story, even if you are unable to help them.” – Megha Jadhav, Top 7 conflict resolution tips for great customer service, Vision; Twitter: @visionhelpdesk

4. Ask questions as much as possible.

Asking questions shows the customer that you want to understand the problem fully, which indicates that you genuinely want to resolve their issue. By asking questions, customer service agents often can identify the root of a problem, rule out other causes and solutions, and provide a quick resolution that solves the customer’s problem.

“Communication is integral to everything you do in a successful customer relationship. It’s the mark of a mature company – one that, regardless of its experience, countless interactions with customers just like this one, and general expertise – to ask questions.” – Madeleine LaPlante-Dube, 6 Conflict Resolution Tips to Foster Better Customer Relationships, HubSpot; Twitter: @HubSpot

5. Practice optimism and positivity in communicating with customers.

Optimism is infectious, and a positive attitude can help to de-escalate angry customers. No matter how frustrated a customer, it’s more difficult to communicate in an angry or disrespectful manner with an agent who is caring, empathetic, and optimistic that they can solve the problem.

“A positive attitude goes a long way in customer service. Make sure you know all of the benefits of the products or services your company provides and convey them to your customers. If customers have a problem with a product or service, focus on what you can do to help them. While you don’t want to seem overly happy when a customer is upset, being proactive and optimistic can help a customer stay positive too.” – Alison Doyle, Top 10 Soft Skills for Customer Service Jobs, The Balance; Twitter: @thebalance

6. Clarify comprehension of the problem by repeating it to the customer.

After listening to the customer and asking questions to clarify their understanding, it’s crucial to describe the problem to the customer in your own words. This allows the customer to clear up any miscommunication or misinterpretation so that you can tackle the problem at hand efficiently.

“Once he’s had time to explain why he’s upset, repeat his concerns so you’re sure that you’re addressing the right issue. If you need to, ask questions to make sure that you’ve identified the problem correctly. Use calm, objective wording.” – Dealing With Unhappy Customers, MindTools; Twitter: @Mind_Tools

7. Show customers your appreciation.

Whatever the outcome of the conflict, ensure that the customer knows that you appreciate their business and that they took the time to make you aware of a problem. It’s common for multiple customers to experience the same problem, so knowing that the issue exists gives you an opportunity to proactively resolve it for other customers.

“Once you’ve achieved a solution, make sure you take time to thank the customer for bringing this problem to your attention and working toward a solution with you. It shows that you value their opinion and their business. This also ends the conflict on a positive note and leaves the customer feeling appreciated and heard.” – Resolving Customer Conflicts, England Logistics; Twitter: @EnglandLogistic

8. Address customer concerns quickly.

Your customers’ time is valuable, and they don’t want to spend hours of their day on the phone with a customer service agent. Listening and confirming your understanding of the problem will help you resolve issues promptly.

“To effectively manage client conflict, you need to handle it quickly. I know that having tough conversations with unhappy clients is never enjoyable, but the faster you can tackle the issue, the better. The longer it takes to address the problem, the bigger the hurdle will be to find a positive solution and make the client happy. Plus, by responding and acting quickly, you’re demonstrating to your client that you care about the client and take the situation seriously.” – Jennifer Bourn, Managing Client Conflicts, Liquid Web; Twitter: @liquidweb

9. Avoid jumping to conclusions about the customer’s problem.

Don’t assume that you know what the customer’s problem is before they’ve finished explaining. While it’s possible that you’ve addressed the same problem with other customers, jumping to conclusions can make customers feel like you don’t want to take the time to listen.

“Above all, don’t assume you know what went wrong, even if you’ve heard similar stories before. Customers don’t like to be treated like they’re one of the anonymous herd. Find out what’s unique to their situation.” – Sterling Newberry, Customer Complaints: Five Easy Steps To Turn Conflict Into A Competitive Edge,; Twitter: @mediatecom

10. Reassure customers about necessary transfers.

There are often times when customer service representatives need to transfer customers to another department or escalate an issue to a manager who has the authority to offer an appropriate solution. But being transferred can frustrate customers who fear that they’ll have to explain everything they’ve just explained all over again. Reassure them that the next agent will be fully informed and capable of addressing their problem before initiating the transfer.

“Few customers will jump for joy because of a transferred call no matter how you handle it, but it’s better to assure them that the action was taken in their favor in order to solve their current problem.” – Gregory Ciotti, Go-To Scripts for Handling 10 Tricky Customer Service Scenarios, Help Scout; Twitter: @helpscout

11. Look for additional insights as you work towards a resolution.

Conflicts are an excellent source of insight about your customers, their needs and expectations, and what types of solutions satisfy them. Take advantage of conflicts to better understand your customers.

“Conflict, when approached in a mutual respective atmosphere, can bring better insights about your team or client’s expectations, communication styles, which can arm you with the best information to find a resolution that’s best for the client, the team, and the project.” – Jayna Fey, Resolve Conflicts In The Workplace With These 12 Techniques, DPM; Twitter: @thedigitalpm

12. Avoid interrupting customers while they explain their problems.

Like jumping to conclusions, interrupting a customer while they’re explaining their problem makes them feel like you don’t care enough to listen to them, which only increases the tension—and your customer’s frustration.

“Notice that acknowledgement is not the same as agreement. When you truly understand your client’s viewpoint, your own becomes clear. If you cut off the customer before you fully hear their side of the story, that interruption can have disastrous consequences.” – Chris Westfall, Five Negotiation Strategies When Traditional Customer Service Fails, Forbes; Twitter: @forbes

13. Actively brainstorm on potential solutions to your customer’s problems.

Make your customer part of the conflict-resolution process by inviting them to suggest solutions or provide feedback on the solutions you offer. When customers feel like they’re part of the decision-making process, they’re likely to be happier with the outcome.

“When customers are upset, they want to know how you are going to handle the problem and fix it. Brainstorming and coming up with viable solutions is an important aspect of customer conflict resolution.

“Tailor solutions to the customer and their specific problem. Don’t offer a universal solution for everyone who has conflict. For example, offering a refund might be necessary, but it shouldn’t be the only customer conflict resolution step you take.” – Rachel Blakely-Gray, How to Pursue Customer Conflict Resolution With a Level Head, Patriot; Twitter: @patriotsoftware

14. Do not forget to follow up post-resolution.

You’ve successfully resolved the conflict, de-escalated the customer, and provided a solution that they’re happy with. But it shouldn’t end there. Following up in a few days or weeks to confirm that the customer isn’t having further problems will demonstrate that you value their business and want them to be satisfied.

“Once a solution is agreed upon, you execute it. This includes fixing the product or service and providing the additional remedy. Following up is a huge final step. Customers often won’t even complain once, they just disappear. If you do hear of a problem and attempt to fix it, you need to follow-up. This ensures the customer ends up happy and satisfied with the outcome. It also protects against an even more infuriated customer out in the marketplace spreading negative messages.” – Neil Kokemuller, Problem Solving Steps in Customer Service, Chron; Twitter: @houstonchron

15. Account for customers’ biases and try to adapt to their communication style.

Customers who have had negative interactions with customer service representatives in the past may expect agents to be uncooperative or unpleasant. Consider how these preconceptions are affecting their communication style and adapt accordingly.

“Realize that just like you, other factors may come to play and affect the person’s interaction with you. Assumptions and how the person perceives you may color how he judges the situation and interprets it. We often deduce information we receive based on how we view the person communicating. Stress and other personal challenges contribute to how effectively we communicate and handle conflicts with other people.” – Teju Duru, 14 Basic Tips for Conflict Management via Email, Woculus; Twitter: @ayo_oyedotun

16. Consider escalating issues to superiors when necessary.

When you know that you can’t identify an acceptable solution or don’t have the authority to approve the solution a customer needs, escalating the issue is necessary. While you should still listen to the customer without interrupting, explain why you need to escalate their call as soon as you have the opportunity so that you don’t waste your customer’s valuable time.

“If you can’t resolve an issue on the phone, or if conversations start to go out of your pay grade, don’t be scared to escalate the issue to a superior.” – Dealing with Difficult Customer Calls,; Twitter: @skillsyouneed

17. Study the company’s products and services deeply to better accommodate customers.

A thorough understanding of the company’s products and services is essential for effective conflict resolution. Without this knowledge, it’s difficult to fully understand customers’ problems, let alone offer workable solutions.

“Understanding the product being sold is crucial for a good team. Companies forget this sometimes, however, and fail to adequately train representatives. This prevents them from doing their jobs. Working from scripts can be helpful, but isn’t enough to turn a decent employee into a great company advocate.” – Margarita Hakobyan, 6 Customer Service Skills Every Employee Needs, CustomerThink; Twitter: @customerthink

18. Allow customers to vent first, then offer solutions.

Angry customers may need to vent, and they may calm down after getting their frustrations out. Plus, allowing them to express their frustration shows them that you’re willing to listen, because you want to help them.

“When faced with an angry customer, FIRST focus on acknowledging the feelings and upset of the customer. Once the customer starts to calm down as a result of having his or her feelings recognized, THEN move to solving the problem. You’ll find that this will save you a lot of time and energy.” – Robert Bacal, The #1 Mistake Made Dealing With Angry Customers, Conflict911; Twitter: @rbacal

19. Avoid placing blame on the customer in any way.

It’s often said that the customer is always right. That’s not true, of course, but you should never indicate to a customer that you think they’re wrong. It can anger customers who were initially calm and rational or further anger those who entered the conversation already frustrated, which isn’t helpful when trying to resolve a conflict.

“Under no circumstance must the customer feel that they are being told that they are wrong. Doing so will only make them more negative and possibly vengeful and anyone in business knows that even one angry customer out to get you has the potency of a devastating hurricane.” – Emily Newman, Honing Conflict Resolution Skills, Yonyx; Twitter: @yonyxtweets

20. Make important steps in problem resolution explicitly clear.

Once you’ve reached a resolution, it’s imperative to take the time to explain any steps the customer must take or limitations on the solution you’ve offered. Doing so helps to avoid misunderstandings and further conflicts.

“Any time there is inadequate communication, the chance for conflict escalates. For example, an angry coworker (Leonard) confides to you that he forgot to tell a customer about limitations on your organization’s return policy. As a result, when the customer brought a product back, another coworker had to deal with a frustrated and angry customer.” – Robert W. Lucas, Responding to Conflict With Customers, SelfGrowth; Twitter: @SelfGrowthNow

21. Work out the details in your customer issue-handling protocol.

Customer service departments should develop clear policies for how agents should recognize and interact with customers during conflicts. This ensures that all customers receive the attention and respect they deserve.

“Sometimes customers are unfairly labeled ‘difficult people’ due to inadequate, confusing, or poorly thought-out policies and protocol. By setting clear standards regarding the treatment of customers, managers can help employees better manage challenging situations and ensure that all parties are treated with dignity and respect. After clearly defining policies, managers should empower employees to make wise, humane decisions within those boundaries.” – Katie Shonk, How to Deal with Difficult Customers, Harvard Law School; Twitter: @HarvardNegoti8

22. Establish clear, professional communication boundaries to limit abuse from irate customers.

While you shouldn’t interrupt customers as a general rule, agents also shouldn’t have to tolerate abusive behavior. When conflict arises or escalates, it’s important to let customers know that you’re aiming to have a cooperative discussion with mutual respect.

“Make statements that let the customer know that certain words or behaviors are beyond the limits of cooperative or productive business conversation (always use positive, supportive tone of voice).” – 7 Things You Can Do to Diffuse Angry Customers,

23. Exercise flexibility where appropriate.

Not every customer issue fits neatly into a “common customer problems” box. When existing policies and solutions don’t fit, agents should have flexibility to develop solutions outside the norm as long as they comply with any guidelines or limitations. If conflicts arise that fall outside the agent’s authority, ensure that they can quickly initiate a seamless transfer to another representative or manager who can resolve the issue.

“Sometimes a single irregular customer can put a part of your service policy into question. That’s great if you’re in a position to adjust it. If employees are taught to think for themselves, get a framework of rules as well as the authority to bend the rules when necessary, then a customer who teaches you something new is a stroke of luck.” – Sven, Solving the 7 Hardest Customer Service Scenarios, Userlike; Twitter: @userlike

24. Head off issues preemptively by acting on feedback.

The best way to resolve conflicts is to avoid them altogether—not because you’re not acknowledging them but because they don’t exist. While it’s impossible to eliminate all potential conflicts, soliciting customer feedback and taking action on those insights can reduce the number of conflicts your agents need to handle.

“You also need to be able to identify and anticipate potential issues. Soliciting customer feedback is a smart way to let customers tell you what they’re experiencing says Tommy Walker, Head Editor of the ConversionXL blog. He recommends, ‘Building feedback loops to gather insights at every point in your customer lifecycle.’” – Elliott Brown, 7 essential steps to solving customer service problems with content, SurveyMonkey; Twitter: @SurveyMonkey

25. Identify core concerns if a customer is venting.

Agitated customers may describe a number of issues during the same interaction. Listen, ask questions, and confirm your understanding to pinpoint the main problems and identify the solution the customer wants.

“An agitated person can jump from subject to subject, and it’s up to the rep to find the specific solution for which the individual is looking. Sometimes, someone is calling just to vent his frustration. In that case, the goal is to lend a sympathetic ear for a sufficient time, enable the caller to blow off some steam, and then end the call by wrapping up the situation.” – Brechtje van Houtum, The seven essential conflict resolution skills for customer service reps,; Twitter: @CMcom

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