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Business Unplugged™
This blog features Carol Roth's tough love on business and entrepreneurship, as well as insights from Carol's community of contributors.

When Your Customer Is a Jerk

Written By: Rich Gallagher | 1 Comment

Angry Client Rude. Demanding. Capricious. Unreasonable. High-maintenance. These are some of the words that come to mind when many small business owners think of their “favorite” customers – the ones you silently (or not so silently) roll your eyes about.

These are the people who are never happy with your prices. Who feel your best work isn’t good enough (but never leave). Who constantly push you on contract terms, create drama, or take up much more time than their value warrants.

We aren’t talking about garden-variety unhappy customers here, but rather people who for all intents and purposes are un-pleasable. And often unbearable.

So how do you deal with these customers? Not the way you might think. Well-meaning friends – and occasionally some articles – will often give you advice that simply won’t work. Stand up to them? Great recipe for enraging most jerk customers. Argue your case? Jerks don’t listen to logic. Set boundaries with them? See you in court.

Fortunately, there are actually some good techniques out there for dealing with jerky customers. They come to us from fields like hostage negotiation, crisis intervention, and managing defiant children. And they often work surprisingly well. Here are some of the key strategies:

Normalize the other person. Normalizing is a mathematical term that means comparing people to a norm. With difficult people, it means painting their position as that of a totally reasonable person – even when you violently disagree with them, and are not going to cave in to their demands.

So your jerk customers want your services at half price? Can’t blame them, budgets are tight these days. They are never satisfied with your work? Of course, they have very high standards and you respect them. They are upset that didn’t give them enough attention? Good point, their agenda is very important.

Does it feel like drinking poison to speak to people like this? Do it anyway. Because behavioral scientists will tell you that this is often your only hope of getting them to listen.

Never complain, never explain. When it is our turn to state our position, we try much too hard to convince jerks that we are right. Even though this never, ever works. So stop trying.

Jerks are genetically programmed to reject anything that benefits you and not them. So let them. You don’t have to convince them of anything to stick to your guns. For example, “I don’t blame you at all for feeling that way. I wish I could help. However, I am still going to go with my own judgment here.”

Offer a face-saving out. Psychologists will tell you that making a small move toward someone can often defuse conflict – it helps them feel like they “won” and left the conversation with something of value. Especially with a jerk who has a strong sense of entitlement and a very fragile ego.

For example, “I can see how important pricing is to you. If things go well on this project, I would be OK with offering you a 10 percent discount on our next project.”

Know when to cut your losses. Challenging customers can make amazing transformations when you respect and engage them, using techniques like the ones above. But some are so toxic that even good communications skills won’t work.

When trying your very best does not change the situation, think seriously about whether firing a customer would be in everyone’s best interests.

Beyond specific rules and communications techniques, here is one guiding principle for what to say to the jerks in your life: what would work with you? Because we are all difficult customers sometimes.

Treat people as human beings, with respect and dignity, and you will often find that even your very worst customers can be understood and managed.

Article written by
Rich Gallagher is a former customer service executive and practicing therapist who heads the Point of Contact Group. His books include two #1 customer service bestsellers, “What to Say to a Porcupine” and ”The Customer Service Survival Kit: What to Say to Defuse Your Worst Customer Situations,” both released by AMACOM. He has taught over 30,000 people what to say in their worst customer and workplace situations.