Dealing with Difficult Customers


The most important business relationships we have are with the people who frequent our salons and pay our bills. Remember, we aren’t doing our clients any favors by grooming their dog—it’s the other way around. They have choices, meaning that groomers who know the best ways to provide excellent customer service without costing too much in money or emotions are the groomers that will stand the test of time.

Let’s start with the basics of customer service: active listening, empathizing, being honest, avoiding knee-jerk responses and keeping your eye on the prize. We’re lucky to have social media to help us blow off steam about customers that push our buttons. With my first salon in the 80’s, the only outlet I had was to make comments to myself or the dogs after the difficult client left or hung up the phone. The door always shut securely to increase safety (and, as a result, ensured that my voice didn’t carry), but not so much with the phone. A couple times when I thought I hung up… it’s awful to lose a customer knowing that they heard YOU say something snarky about them.

Even the nicest person has a bad day and dumps that all over a handy tradesperson, whether it’s the groomer, waitress or cashier. Keep in mind that you don’t know what that person is going through. Did the person who showed up early and made a nasty face because their dog won’t be ready for 15 more minutes have to pick up kids at daycare by a certain time? Or perhaps a spouse at the cancer center? Even if it’s no reason you can see, try not to care about bad attitudes if they are decent customers.

Always resist the temptation to answer snarky customers in kind. Instead, address what is likely to be the customer’s concern—they have a life and simply want to plan their day accordingly. Try offering something along the lines of, "I’m sorry if there was a miscommunication, but there’s no change to the time we gave you this morning. We will call or text when his grooming is completed. If you’re on a tight schedule, would you mind waiting a moment so I can get a better estimate of time?".

When to Let Go

When grooming full time, I always had a pretty good idea of how much each client brought into my business, which made it a lot easier to choose to put up with occasional bad behavior. That lady that was snarky for no good reason? She brought her Shih-Tzu in once a month, and at $55 per groom, I could put up with a lot for over $600 a year.

That said, if there’s disrespectful customers that are costing you more in stress than dollars, fire them. Before firing a customer, make sure the situation can’t be resolved another way. They make you crazy because they never show up on time? Discuss it. "Mrs. Jones, I need to tell you that your late arrivals for your appointments are wreaking havoc with my schedule. What can I do to make it easier for you to be on time?".

End the discussion with, "Great! I’m glad we discussed this. In future, late appointments will mean that I cannot guarantee your usual two hour groom time, as I will need to do some juggling to complete everyone’s pet," or, "In future, late appointments may mean that I’m not able to honor that appointment and we’ll need to reschedule." Or just be smart and start telling them 12:30 for a 1:00 appointment—whatever works.

Never fire someone on impulse. If you are pretty sure they need to go, wait 48 hours to cool down before you tell them. It will keep you from making mistakes and from treating a business decision emotionally.

When firing a customer, be matter of fact and don’t leave room for an argument. Whether it’s by email or phone, keep it short and professional: "Mr. Smith, although we’ve tried to accommodate your lateness for appointments, our business needs dictate that we not continue to do so. Thank you for your patronage in the past. We wish you and Fluffy all the best." Don’t be accusatory, don’t complain and be polite.

If it’s the chronic complainer, try, "Mrs. Brown, you tell us how unhappy you are with the results of Buster’s groom every time. Our aim is to see that every customer is pleased with their pet’s appearance, and since we don’t seem able to do that for you, another groomer might suit you better. Going forward, we will not be able to schedule Buster for appointments here at the Happy Puppy."

Defending Your Services

Some of the worst situations to handle include what to say when the customer tells you the veterinarian said you caused a problem. This can range from ear infections to hot spots to more severe injuries, but it’s devastating when a customer says there’s something wrong with their pet—and the veterinarian says you did it. Assure the customer that you are sorry that their pet is having a problem and tell them you’d like to know more about it.

First, DO NOT take the customer’s word that the veterinarian threw you under the bus. Assuming your shop’s policy is to pay for anything caused by the grooming, ask for an itemized copy of the bill that they want to be reimbursed for. I’ve seen owners try and bundle an annual wellness visit, vaccinations, flea and heartworm prevention and more onto a bill that they claim is the salon’s responsibility. If you pay, make sure you are paying only for items directly related to the issue at hand.

Always ask the client if they will give their veterinary clinic permission to speak to you about the pet’s health and discuss the bill. Be upfront and ask the veterinarian if they blamed you—usually, it’s that the veterinarian said something along the lines of, "an issue like this could be caused by many things, among them a flea bite if the dog’s allergic, soap left on the skin, dirty or dull clipper blades or even just the dog scratching," but the owner only heard the things that put someone else at fault.

Check the date on the bill—if the dog was seen by a veterinarian 10 days after a grooming, it may not be related. Consider anything less than that seriously, but contact your insurance company first as they’d be able to better advise. As always, listen carefully to determine what the customer’s issue really is. They may want an apology more than they want the money.

Handling Injuries

It’s always tough to tell a customer that their animal was injured under your care and you’re liable for it. Look—it happens to all of us. No one intends to injure an animal, so be honest. If the dog freaked out while having her face scissored and a cut resulted, tell the owner how it happened. Apologize, and tell them what you will do to prevent it from happening again.

Don’t be surprised if you still lose the customer over it. Wouldn’t you at least hesitate before bringing your own pet back to a place where it was injured? Sometimes the best thing you can do is damage control. Leave your customer with the feeling that you accepted responsibility, felt badly and are taking steps to prevent it from happening again. The customer that leaves angry after an argument is the one who’ll leave bad reviews.

If a client comes in and gives you the, "you won’t hurt him, will you?", it’s difficult not to respond to this with a biting, sarcastic response. If someone’s really afraid that you’ll harm their pet, I don’t think they’d bring it to you. Listen to what the customer is really saying—they’re concerned about leaving their pet with a stranger, or perhaps your regular client’s dog was a lethargic for two days after his last groom.

All we can do is reassure the client that we understand how difficult it is to leave pets with strangers, but we take care of each dog like it’s our own. Inquire about any medical issues the pet may have that would affect his comfort or safety, whether that’s hearing or vision problems, old injuries, seizures, frequent diarrhea, etc.

The customer saying "hurt him" is a red flag. The dog may have been injured at a groomer or veterinarian perhaps due to behavior, or the owner is expecting it to happen and plans to make a fuss. Video this grooming to have a record that the pet was not hurt. Sometimes good customer relations means anticipating what a customer might do and planning for it.

Putting Customers at Ease

Oftentimes, you’ll get a client on the phone asking if you know how to groom a common breed. Oh, how I want to answer this one day with, "not a clue, why?". But, snarkiness aside, the potential customer may have had a grooming experience that they didn’t like or it didn’t come out how they thought it would. What they really want here is reassurance that the dog will look the way they want it to. Reasonable, as that’s the service that we provide. The best answer would be to highlight your groomers’ professional training and certifications, and discuss what exactly their expectations are.

Additionally, groomers can’t take criticisms as a personal attack. It may be the most difficult part of customer service advice to follow. Try to remember that unhappy customers are upset with the business, not you as an individual, and move on to solve the problem.

It’s hard not to take offense if you encounter a client that says, "you can’t be a good groomer if you can’t brush out a few tangles!" after you explained that their badly matted pet will require a smoothie or start-over trim. Instead, take a deep breath and understand that the customer is probably feeling guilty or defensive over allowing their pet to get in that bad of shape—answer that instead of the insult by explaining that you know it’s hard to keep up with the coat, but neither of us wants to put the dog through any discomfort. Sympathize that you understand they don’t like the coat short, but that’s what’s easiest on the pet. Recommend a regular grooming schedule frequent enough so that doesn’t happen again.

Many groomers are feeling aggrieved by customers demanding instant service after the gap in appointments caused by the coronavirus. Try to remember that for the vast majority of groomers, that customer that called and texted repeatedly while you were still closed, or the off again, on again customer that demands an immediate appointment are in the minority. Most of our customers deserve the empathy and respect that we give them, and they give it back to us in return.  PB

Carol Visser has been involved in the pet industry since 1982 in various capacities, including grooming in and owning a busy suburban shop, working as a product expert for PetEdge, teaching seminars and training dogs. She certified as a Master Groomer with NDGAA in 1990 and as a Certified Pet Dog Trainer in 2007, and she continues to enjoy learning about dogs and grooming at her small salon in rural Maine.