6 Suggestions to Best Deal with Your Most Difficult Patients

Our new normal has taken its toll on everyone, causing tempers to flare easier, issues to seem like life or death, and people who just want to take it all out on you because you’re right there.  

As someone who had been in the customer service industry for nearly two decades, I know what it’s like to be the punching bag for a customer who is in a bad mood. If you are sensitive to these kinds of attacks and you’re not entirely sure how to push through it, I have a few suggestions that got me through.  

Just a little history: I worked at a buffet restaurant, an elementary school, Value Village, Walmart, and a marketing firm, just to name a few. I have not only dealt with difficult customers in-person, but I have also dealt with them over the phone. Now, I practice empathy with any frontline worker, whether they’re delivering my food, working the till, or standing behind the front desk, because I know what it’s like to become a target for someone’s anger. 

So, here are 6 of my own suggestions to best deal with your most difficult patients. 

1. Remind yourself it’s not your fault 

When I’d train anyone in a customer service position, I’d tell them that even though the customer may seem like they are attacking you personally, it’s not your fault.  

Most of the time your difficult patients are already in a mood, and they are looking for a fight.  

Don’t engage.  

Engaging will put you at fault if something goes horribly wrong. Instead, take a step back, and remind yourself that their anger, though directed at you, is not because of you.

2. Be nice 

Sometimes your best defense is to be the nicest, kindest person you can be. Trust me, difficult patients have a hard time being mean to a nice person.  

For example, a good friend and someone I used to work with at a buffet restaurant used to smile when a customer was attacking her. That was her defense: a smile and a kind voice. The harder they pushed, the nicer she became until eventually, the customer just relaxed and calmly told her what their real issue was.  

The nicer you are, the more relaxed the difficult patient will feel. Being nice, being friendly, being reassuring will relieve their stress and yours and it might allow you to have a real conversation with the patient about what’s really bothering them. 

3. Let the difficult patient know what you can do (not what you can’t) 

The worst possible thing you can tell a difficult patient is “I can’t” or “I don’t know”. Stay far away from both these phrases when dealing with a difficult patient.  
 

Instead, tell the patient what you can do to help them; even if it is something small, they will appreciate it. When it comes to “I don’t know”, instead, tell the patient that for their particular inquiry, the dentist or the hygienist or the treatment coordinator will be better suited to answer it.  

Basically, if you don’t have the answer, find someone who does. 

4. Avoid the word “policy” 

“Policy” is one of those no-no words when it comes to dealing with difficult patients. I found that by using it, it usually resulted in temper tantrums and customers screaming in my face “I don’t care about the policy!”  

As I’ve learned, the only reason they don’t care about the policy is that they don’t understand the policy (this goes double for the new policies put in place for COVID-19). If they have to wear a mask, or sanitize at the door, or keep their hands off the desk, it is not “policy”, it is a safety measure so that they and you don’t get sick. Just be honest about what your dental clinic is doing to protect all patients and staff.  

Disclaimer: you might come across those who just don’t care about COVID-19, or worse, don’t believe it exists. In those cases, the only thing you can do is stand your ground. Find a way to keep yourself and them safe without resorting to yelling and screaming.  

If explaining that you need them to keep their hands off your desk and keep a 6-foot distance doesn’t work, use other means; put up a plastic shield or post a standing sign. Do what you need to do to protect yourself, but also make sure that what you do sends the message that you’re trying to keep them and others safe, too. 

5. Take time to listen 

When I dealt with difficult customers, in-person or on the phone, I let the customer rail at me (for minutes sometimes) until they finally ran out of steam. Listening to the person without interruption will help you to understand their issue and will, in turn, help them to let it out without resorting to name-calling.  

I found that most people are reasonable, even when they’re angry if you just let them tell their side of the story.   

6. Take a minute 

As a customer service representative, I needed to take a minute for myself to de-stress. Some difficult people can really get to you, get under your skin, and ruin your entire day. You don’t want or deserve that.  

When I was training our newest Customer Service Representative, I told him that he was going to get yelled at, sometimes. I told him that some clients might take out his anger on him, and as a result, cause his anxiety to spike and his stress to build, and worse, make him feel horrible.  

said to him that when that happens, no matter the situation, just take a minute. Leave the desk, go outside and scream, or take a walk, or scroll through social media on your phone.  

This was what I would do, too. Whenever I had a rude or difficult customer, I’d find that the bad encounter would leave me trembling. I guess that was just me holding back my anger and emotions. Leaving the workspace and taking a moment for me really helped. It also helped that when I came back, I was rewarded with customers who told me how awesome I was and how I didn’t deserve that treatment.  

Just remember that there are more good people than there are difficult people, and taking a minute, though it does help you, helps you take better care of them as well.  

Conclusion 

When it comes to dealing with difficult people, whether on the phone or in-person, I learned that being nice, being reassuring, listening while they railed, avoiding words like “policy, can’t” and the phrase “I don’t know”, and taking a minute for me after a bad encounter, allowed me to do my job without feeling too overwhelmed or stressed.  

But no matter what you do, or they do, no matter the situation, there is always one crucial thing to keep in mind: the only actions you can control are your own.