Resolving Conflict: Essential Customer Service Skills for Independent Studio Owners

By Janelle Scott

American Music Teacher, April/May 20217

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Do you ever find yourself intimidated by confrontational conversations? Do discussions regarding policies, procedures and payment plans make you squirm, or do you find yourself externally cringing when aggressive parents raise their voices and attempt to manipulate and bend you to their will? You’re not alone. As a musician, teacher, small business owner and recovering people-pleaser, I understand how difficult it can be to assert yourself with confidence when it comes to resolving conflict with the families of students— your clients and potential customers.

For many years, my love for people and genuine desire to make everyone happy and keep the peace (that is, avoid conflict) instigated major work-life stress. In fact, I would have to admit that it’s been the primary source of tension throughout my career as a music teacher. Yet strong customer service skills remain essential for any thriving business—music studios being no exception—so finding the balance between being “nice” and being a pushover was essential. Thankfully, experience makes a fantastic teacher!

Several years of tough interactions in the customer service field provided me with repeated opportunities to learn from my mistakes and begin handling awkward situations with grace, rather than fear and timidity. I’ve had several especially challenging job roles in the past that put me in the direct line of fire. Daily, I was dealing with hundreds of unhappy clients, resolving customer complaints, collecting on overdue accounts and having uncomfortable conversations non-stop. To survive and stay employed, I had no choice but to let go of my fainthearted tendencies and begin confidently interacting with clients.

As self-employed individuals, music teachers often find themselves dreading business-related conversations. In many cases, these discussions can feel both discouraging and disempowering. The great news is, they don’t need to be as awkward or fear-inducing as we might think!

Music teachers are artists, and artists can tend to instinctively react to situations with emotion. But what if we are able to set those emotions aside, put on our business hats and simply operate from a place of straight- forward kindness and honesty? As Danny Meyer states, “Understanding who needs to know what, when people need to know it, and why, and then presenting that information in an entirely comprehensible way is a sine qua non of great leadership” (2010, 192–193). Our approach to these difficult conversations will play a large role in the type of reactions we receive from our clients. From one people-pleaser to another, here are some tips for thriving in your customer service interactions.

1. Listen and Affirm

Do you find it easy to jump ahead of your client in conversation and make assumptions about where the discussion is headed? Avoid fast-forwarding the narrative in your imagination and instead, truly listen to what your client is communicating. Be present in the moment. Once you’ve taken the time to hear them out, affirm that you’ve accurately understood the information they have conveyed. The following phrases can be helpful:

  • “What I’m understanding is...”
  • “Based on what you’ve just told me, it sounds like your concern is...”
  • “Correct me if I’m wrong, but the issue you’d like addressed is...”

Assuring your client that you’ve heard their request and appreciate their dilemma goes a long way toward developing trust and rapport.

2. Assess the Situation

Consider the client’s situation from an unbiased perspective. Put yourself in their shoes when considering their circumstances and evaluating what your response should be. Did you make a mistake or fail to clearly communicate a policy or expectation? Be sure to apologize before you begin resolving the issue. Is your client going through an extenuating circumstance that may require an extra measure of grace? Extend a helping hand and make an appropriate exception to the rule when merited. Is your client making unreasonable or ridiculous claims to try to elicit an emotional response? State the truth with a calm, neutral tone and hold your ground.

3. Restate Policies

It goes without saying that when you begin a business relationship with a client, it’s essential to be open and upfront about your business policies and practices. If the client agrees to your terms, you can rest assured that they feel comfortable with your policy. Having said that, clients will for- get certain policies from time to time. Often, a gentle reminder of the agreed upon terms will be enough to calm an anxious or upset client.

When restating your policies, keep your tone patient and kind and avoid defensiveness and irritation. After all, we cannot expect our clients to memorize our policies or carry a copy of our studio guidelines with them at all times. Expect that clients will need occasional reminders. Keep your explanations brief and avoid outlining the reasons for your policies in intense detail. There is no need to justify fair business practices.

4. Maintain Professional Boundaries

Remain professional in all of your interactions! This means your demeanor and decisions should at all times be firm but fair, calm but considerate and both clarifying and affirming. You should always have the customer’s best interests at heart. At the same time, you have a business to run and cannot afford to be inconsistent in your resolutions and reactions.

5. See the Person in Front of You

Yes, this is business, not personal. And yes, you must firmly and fairly uphold your policies. But please remember that the client in front of you is a living, breathing human being. They may be having a rough day or overreacting because of a difficult situation in their life and are choosing to take their anger and unstable emotions out on you. If a client seems to be responding with disproportional frustration, remind yourself that you don’t know what they might be going through in that moment. Their negative response might be totally unrelated to the situation at hand. A little empathy can go a long way. Choose to respond with kindness.

6. Stay Calm in the Face of Temper Tantrums

It is, without question, disconcerting to be the subject of a temper tantrum. Refuse to be rattled! If a client tosses mean accusations your way, and you know that you’ve been fair in your dealings with them, you have no reason to feel hurt or ashamed. This is unacceptable and manipulative behavior, and it reflects poorly on the client, not you.

7. Keep Respect a Part of Every Interaction

What about that famous slogan, “the customer is always right”? In my experience, the customer is not always right! But the customer does deserve our respect, even if it hasn’t been earned. After all, “Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction” (Meyer 2010, 11). Showing respect in our inter- actions is part of good business, and it is part of being a kind person.

In our line of work as independent studio owners, often with little to no business training, it is easy to perceive difficult conversations as conflict, when often they are neutral in nature. But whether a client is combatant or calm, seeing the person in front of us and affirming their needs while respectfully upholding our policies, approaching each situation with kindness and de-escalating conflict with grace, will reflect well on your character as a professional educator. Our positive impact will increase by eliciting “passion, positivity, and a willingness to go the extra mile in all interactions” (Cutler 2010, 37). When you let go of the fear that accompanies people-pleasing and, instead, embrace a confident approach to customer service, you will find yourself truly beginning to flourish as a small business owner.


Cutler, David. 2010. The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living & Making a Difference. Pittsburgh, PA: Helius Press.

Meyer, Danny. 2010. Setting the Table. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Janelle Scott


Janelle Scott believes that both enjoyment and excellence should be equally emphasized in each music lesson, and she focuses on developing imagination and creativity alongside technical and artistic excellence.



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