Dealing with customers and clients (especially difficult customers and clients!) can be one of the most challenging aspects of the business world. And since my friend Rich Gallahgar is developing a new book for AMACOM on how to handle your very worst customer situations, I decided to have the CarolRoth.com contributor network of entrepreneurs, advisors and experts share some of their worst customer/client situations and how they handled them, as well as general tips on how to deal effectively with these issues. Their answers are presented below in no particular order and some may even be included in Rich’s book!
You may notice some of the same ideas listed, but I kept them separate, as something in the way one is framed may resonate differently with you.
1. Hear Them
Listening to an upset customer and actually hearing what they have to say should be standard practice. Not only will it make them feel better, it will give you the information to solve the problem or address the situation and avoid future problems. It will also help you avoid falling back on "that's our policy" because the customer hears that as "we don't care".
2. Dealing w/ Difficult Customers
Customers are difficult because we have not defined the rules clearly. I had a client who had a customer that was abusing the relationship: calling her home at all hours of the day and night, being overbearing and demanding.
We crafted a strategy to approach this customer and define the rules of the relationship. She not only defined the rules of the relationship that both could live with, but she raised the price. Now, he is one of her best customers.
3. Dealing with Eeyore Vampires
Eeyore Vampires are the negative, demanding clients who respond, "It'll never work" to your solutions & at night, suck your time, energy & attention from family & keep you up.
Here's how to Work Positive with them:
1. Redirect: Change the conversation abruptly in a more positive direction
2. Reframe: Offer a "Yes, but" response to the objection
3. Remove: Fire the client because it costs you too much in wasted time, energy, & headaches
4. Replace: Find an ideal client to Work Positive with
4. It's Ok to Fire Your Clients
Being in a bad relationship is not good for either party. Whether it's poor communication, a lack of respect, or not living up to expectations- you don't deserve to be treated poorly & neither do they. You have one reputation. Poor relationships can damage everything that you worked for years to build. If you think it's not working, say something! Talk about the issues; be accountable, fair and ready to apologize- and demand the same. Finally, don't be afraid to break up (no matter how big the contract).
5. Know When to Fold 'Em
As a parent, I've found that dealing with problem clients is much like dealing with a problem child; you need to know where the boundaries are and be willing to impose limits. It's very powerful to speak the truth of what behavior you will and will not accept. Then, make sure your actions match your words! This may mean "firing" a client who doesn't respect your agreement...since you can't send a client to their room!
6. A Diamond in the Rough
Client expectations do not always mirror the company's offer of work. For example, we clean upscale homes and offer several packages to meet different budgets. Even though we have a clearly defined listing of what we offer, confusion can erupt. To resolve a dispute, we sent in a second team to clean the same house again the following day. While it cost me extra, I was able to get the client to upgrade to a higher package. We recovered the extra cost and created a loyal client.
In a client situation that is fixable, you tell them what is unacceptable to you and that you don't do business like that.
8. Refund on Product I Don't Sell
I once had someone request, in a belligerent tone, a refund for a product I didn't sell. Although I didn't plan to send him any money, I did offer to help him determine who he needed to contact for the refund.
9. Please Now, Avoid Later!
Now, I'm not asking you to avoid customers or anything. Wait, that's exactly what I'm saying! Some customers, that want to nitpick and get under your skin unreasonably, are going to get the better of your mood and productivity moving forward. You have to know when to fire certain customers and move on. While dealing with worst case scenario customers, do the best you can to please them now and ensure that you don't initiate future business with them. And, giving them chocolates will also help.
10. Fire Them, It's Not Worth It!
I love it when prospects actually have money and engage experts to help them. However, nothing is more painful then to fight for and with a client who just doesn't care and isn't engaged, dragging the timeline on for months. I had no choice then to fire that client and return her money, which she never even deposited back.
As a result, I qualify prospects as they do me, and only take on those that are fully engaged and committed to the work that both of us have to do. That is a win-win.
11. Make Them a Hero
Every customer is one mistake away from becoming difficult. Naturally, the best way to deal with them is to not give them a reason to be difficult. That is not always an option, right?
If you give somebody an opportunity to be a hero, they will be loyal to you for life! Listen to the customer, validate their feelings, and give them a forum to vent. Then, thank them for giving you the opportunity to be better! Resolve issues, reassure them it will not be repeated, and build a true friend!
12. Kill Them with Politeness
You will meet an array of personalities. Some you like and some you don't. I believe that I always have a choice. If I get a vibe from a customer that they will be very picky or hard to please, I may as well just not do business with them. I would rather lose a transaction than be stuck with a bad review! On another note, if you do decide to go ahead with the transaction and then have a hard time with an unhappy customer… return the money, politely.
13. Using BBB to Get Free Work?
On a small writing job, the customer slipped in extra work (so she got twice the work for what she paid). She took us to the BBB to get 100% of her money back because there was a spelling error and two missing periods. We countered, she countered, and the BBB asked us to resolve, so we sent back the documents with the two periods and the spelling error corrected. The customer was even more pissed, because her goal from the start had been to get us to work for free. But our good name was protected.
14. Walking Away from Business
No business is perfect and therefore, not all clients will be either. I once had a bride who wanted more for her money. I was hired as a Day of Coordinator for her wedding; she ended up asking for services that fell under my Partial Planning package. I offered her to upgrade, but unfortunately, she decided that she did not want to upgrade and still wanted what she asked for. In the end, we had to part ways, since an agreement was not met. Sometimes, it's best to walk away; it wasn't a good fit.
15. Temperament Can Help!
Recognizing a very anxious client as having a dominant "Air" temperament, I provided him with additional data, charts, and other relevant information. This addressed his need to feel competent and knowledgeable about my forthcoming consultation with his staff and reduced his anxiety level. Temperament is a useful tool for tailoring your work to the specific needs of your client. A successful working relationship resulted and has continued to this day.
16. Baby Mama
A mother brought her precious 3-year-old daughter in for potty training issues. The mother was so rigid and anal retentive that it was impossible for the girl to relax and let nature take its course. I hypnotized the girl, and voila, she began to release all her mother had unconsciously made her hold in. Unfortunately, she did so in a neighbor's swimming pool.
Of course, the mother blamed me for this and demanded her money back. I complied, for I have learned when to release!
17. Catch Them and Keep Them
Great customer service equals great customer loyalty. What sets a competitive business apart from all of the rest is customer satisfaction! But, how do you keep a customer happy when something goes wrong? Here are three main keys in turning an irate customer into a happy one:
1.) Listen to the issue or concern and show empathy for the dissatisfaction.
2.) Tell the customer what you will do to resolve the problem.
3.) Follow through and follow-up. Show the customer you care and appreciate them.
Thanks to: Faithe Rogers.
18. Customer is NOT Always Right
I'm a firm believer in bending over backward to provide excellent customer service when your company has failed to give the highest level of satisfaction. On the other hand, there are customer/business relationships that were just never meant to be. You often find this out when a customer becomes a continual difficult nightmare to deal with. You've tried everything, but they are never satisfied. Sometimes, the best thing for both parties is to gracefully say goodbye.
19. Getting Beyond Anger
The ideal approach for dealing with angry clients is not to feed into their anger or allow it to intimidate you. Basically, those clients feel misunderstood, or wronged, in some way.
The detective work is to find the clues as to what they really want for a successful outcome. Find out the true source of their frustration, make sure that you let them know that you heard them and rephrase it. Then, look for solutions. Be flexible, creative and willing to compromise.
20. A Multi-tasking Parental Quote
My mother would say to me, "I'm not mad; I'm disappointed." I'd prefer mad! There is nothing worse than disappointing someone because it means that you did not do what people have come to know you and trust you for. An "enlistee" of mine used this method on a slow-paying client, saying, "I'm disappointed that you expect such efficiency from others, but you do not practice the same efficiency." The client reached into his desk, pulled out his check book and wrote the sum for the full amount.
21. Fire Them!
We have a "three strikes, you're out" policy that works really well. My staff and I do a terrific job for our clients. If someone is rude, unpleasant or just an all around bad egg, we figure once or twice may be a coincidence, but three times is a pattern. Our business is a fun place, where we do fun things and ultimately life is too short. The "worst clients" are taking the space where a decent, reasonable and positive person could be. Trust me, you don't want every customer, just the good ones.
22. Bad Client Relationships
I was hired to find out why there were so many problems at a floral company and I did an intensive round robin at the organization. It finally concluded with the fact that the president himself was the issue. I did what I had to do and informed him; he acknowledged it, the group held their tongue and I never worked for them again.
23. ROI of Difficult Clients?
The question is the value of difficult clients. If you step back and dispassionately assess the value of the client in terms of margin vs. time spent, you may be surprised. Clients are allowed to be demanding. What they are not allowed to do is waste a disproportionate amount of time compared to the amount of business they give you. Assess the client and sit down and have a frank conversation with them. Show where you can provide value and if they disagree, be ready to fire or be fired.
24. Putting Out a Facebook Fire
We had a customer post a negative comment on our Facebook page. Her settings were set to "view only TicketKick's posts" rather than view everyone's, so she thought that we were deleting her comments. Outraged, she started mass-posting hateful comments everywhere she could. We called her to find out why she was so upset and how we could make things right. Realizing that we didn't delete any of her comments, she felt silly and took them down, and publicly announced that we took care of the situation.
25. Worst Client & Competitor Meet
It happened again, nightmare on sales street. The about to be client thought that to negotiate conditions set by my then employer required complete disrespect. Recognizing life is too short to deal with an unreasonable other, I contemplated possibilities. There was one sales rep at another company who held similar character to the prospect in question. I introduced the two. They liked one another so much that together, they wrote me the nicest thank you note! P.S. Qualifying yields a Smooth Sale.
26. Encourage it
When faced with a negative customer experience, encourage your customers to tell you all about it.
People want to complain to people who will listen and that can either be you, or they can go tell their friends, and so on, and so on.
You can be your own insurance policy against complaints going viral if you're willing to let your customers vent to you.
27. No More Bad Clients
As the owner of a PR agency in NYC, I have encountered a variety of personality types. A few years back, I had one difficult client who had the most unrealistic expectations when it came to publicity. So, after he made a few outlandish demands, I fired him. I told him he was fired and we would never work with him again, regardless of the amount of money he paid. Sometimes, no amount of money is worth it and business owners should not hesitate to eliminate those toxic client relationships.
28. Stay Calm! Don't Get Emotional
When I dealt with my worst client, the best way to handle it was to stay calm. I never got too emotional because it could have backfired on me. I kept the attitude that "the customer is always right". I just made sure that I did whatever I could to satisfy my client's needs. It's the best way I could keep them happy.
29. Pomp Removal
Some circumstances call for taking the pomp out of the pompous. My worst client was a brilliant lawyer who once told me, "When I juxtapose empirical inefficiency with theoretical competence, inevitably & invariably, the former prevails." Fortunately, I was an English teacher before becoming an entrepreneur, and I replied, "Despite your conviction that when empirical inefficiency is juxtaposed with..., nonetheless, the price remains firm."
He was temporarily speechless, but then acquiesced.
30. An Ethical Dilemma
I was subcontracting to a marketing firm that asked me to do a project I found morally reprehensible and I turned it down. And after that experience, I added this to the material that I send prospective clients:
Please note that I reserve the right to reject a project if I feel I'm not the right person for it. This would include projects (listed criteria).
31. I'm Ok, You're Ok!
The very best way to deal with a difficult client is to first disarm their biggest fear which is that they won't be listened to. Do this and you are 90% there to resolving any issue that might arise. Then, it is just a matter of engaging them humanly with compassion to address their concerns and coming up with a resolution that just as importantly is fair to BOTH parties. In the end, it's about a relationship, not a battle and more often than not, it will lead to a positive outcome for everyone!
32. Put Your Ego on the Shelf!
When my big monthly-project client froze new work for 6 months, I panicked! But panic's a luxury. It won’t bring cash. You must look at your numbers and plan. My spreadsheet said I'd do OK if I added just 4 projects from other clients. I called my client. I didn't talk about my needs in panic mode – I talked about hers. I helped her find solutions – as a favor. Smart move! When the freeze was lifted, she increased my assignments and invited me to visit in Australia, all expenses paid!
33. Charming Your Worst Client
Dealing with a difficult client is certainly not easy. Hiding or ignoring them and their issue is not the best thing to do either. In one such case, I went a step further by not just acknowledging the problem, but sending the client a handwritten "Thank You" card for their "patience" and allowing me the opportunity to work on solving the problem. In the end, the card concept won them over and we were able to change the outcome to their benefit, even with the changes they had to make.
34. Are You Finished Being Rude?
It happened to a friend of mine who was impatient and curt with a customer service rep. on the phone.
The rep quietly and gently said to my friend: "Excuse me Ma'am. Are you finished being rude?"
It caught my friend off-guard and caused her to profusely apologize for her bad behavior.
35. I "Fired" Our Client...
I had a client who was NEVER satisfied and drove us crazy with demands. When he next wanted to do business, I invited him to lunch and told him how much I appreciated his past business, but was sorry we "never seemed to meet his expectations" and I suggested he should look elsewhere. He looked stunned for a moment, then started to laugh. "You just fired me, didn't you?" I smiled and said "Yes". A few months later, he came back, apologized and has since become a much more appreciative client.
36. Customer is Always Right...NOT
It is a mantra that has lived in the annals of customer service and meeting client needs for decades..."The Customer is Always Right". The reality is often further from this "truth" then one would expect. I have on occasion dealt with a customer or client that thought they knew exactly what they wanted or needed. Of course, they couldn't see the proverbial "forest for the trees", so I used a variety of decision-making techniques to look at other options that provided a greater outcome for them.
37. Not Outgunned
One client made everything into a war. Macho issues, I think. We'd bid $10K on a job. He'd come back at $2K. No joke. Then, he took me to a gun range, to impress me and try to continue the "negotiation". I surprised him by outshooting him. Then, I turned and explained that "I'm a straight shooter. When my bid says $10K, that's what the job costs."
He laughed and hired me at my original bid of $10K.
38. Clients are Our Mirrors
If I am having a challenge with a client, I identify the specific challenge and then look within to determine what this mirror is reflecting back to me. My clients are only reflections of something within me, so I address that which is going on within me. I use a spiritual process to release the cause of my client relating as he or she is at the moment and when I do, often they or the situation changes more effortlessly and satisfactorily.
39. A Delicate Situation!!!
Do not become gruff, defensive or argumentative. This kind of response will lead to you being unfavorably labeled as short-tempered or much worse. A reputation like that can follow you and harm your business. Instead of going on the defensive, carefully and calmly defuse the situation. It won't be easy, but you must establish boundaries in the beginning to avoid conflicts later on.
40. Stay Soft & Easy
You simply ask:
“Please tell me what exactly you are looking for from me, in order that we both walk away happy?”
Direct, simple & very honest!
Seeing how easy it is to work with you, no fighting or hassling, they will want to come back again to do more business with you.
Important to remember:
1. Make sure that you are not the difficult person to work with.
2. It should always be enjoyable to work and do business together. If it’s a chore or an ordeal, something is wrong.
41. An "Eye" Problem...
A potential client came into my office and started literally screaming at me. I thought she'd eventually calm down, but after 3 or 4 minutes, I could see it wasn't going to happen. Do I need people screaming at me? No way! I took her gently by the elbow and steered her to the door, telling her that I had an "eye" problem - I couldn't see myself working with her. I had her out and the door closed before she could reply.
42. Drop Her or Confront Her?
I'd helped a client 5 times- most recently moving a table and 4 chairs. She said I'd "knocked a corner off" of 1 chair, but, she needed me again.
I didn't argue with her; maybe she was right. I knew I'd handled them very carefully. I did NOT believe that I did what she said. Should I tell her no or help her again?
I helped her again and got a look at the chair with a corner missing. It was painted over. It was long dried. It was done long before. She apologized to me for thinking I'd done it!
43. I Did it Myself!
Of course, everyone knows how to do branding... or marketing... or how to design corporate identity. This particular client hired the services of my company a few years ago and then proceeded to design his own logos - each version arrived with an essay describing the symbolism of it. Clearly, I was hired purely to admire and nod. Eventually, I had to contact other MDs and politely explain that a) they are paying me for my work; b) my portfolio is my reputation. Further design submissions stopped.
44. Hackers Couldn't Hurt Me
Recently, my email account was hacked. A spammer sent messages to my subscribers asking them to sign up for a free program. The link in the email led nowhere. Several people complained about it.
I used this situation to my advantage. I sent an email to my list apologizing and offering a free year's subscription to my membership site to the first 20 people who asked for it.
The response was great. I rebuilt credibility with my list and generated some good will out of a bad situation.
45. Fight with Your Customers
I sold a remodeling project to a customer and he wanted to change it after items were ordered. Funny thing is, his changes weren't even possible. The product didn't exist. I knew this and told him, but he wanted to fight over it. Figuring his personality into it, I fought back, arguing point by point. I won him over with my expertise and gained his respect in the process. He was an ideal client from then on.
46. Handling a Difficult Customer
Allow the person to vent. Shutting the individual down when he/she is in the middle of expressing anger or frustration is not a good idea. Anger is usually caused by frustration. Validate how the person feels. Take responsibility, even if you didn't make the mistake. Sincerely apologize. Offer something of value (service recovery) if you want to keep that client. The amount of the service recovery depends on the faux pas made.
47. Walk Away
They say never burn bridges. Strategically, that is a myth. Some bridges need to be burned. In this case, I had a client who felt that I should do whatever they want, whenever they want, for no charge. All I did was hold them to the contract. It had been fulfilled. So, my services were over. This sounds simple, but often we get tied up wanting to please. Some people are never happy, so don't waste your time trying to make them happy.
48. ASK, Don't Tell
Courageous dialogue is about having the conversations that matter most and are mostly avoided, which are key to dealing with difficult client situations. Speak with the three C's: confidence, credibility and compassion. Instead of "telling", ASK. Use open ended questions (who, what, where, when, why and how) to understand the real issue and concern. When you get to the real issue, solutions are a lot easier to find.
49. Be Emotionally Intelligent
Emotional intelligence (EI) is all about recognizing and managing the emotions of others and yourself. First, acknowledge the pain behind the complaint e.g. "I appreciate what you have just shared with me." Then, ask "What can I do within my power to make this situation better?" People are negatively conditioned to insincere "I'm sorry" apologies. Remember, by listening & applying EI, you can turn an unhappy camper into a happy one who may increase sales 10 fold.
50. Handle it with Style!
When faced with a difficult situation - related to a customer or client - try to understand their personality and gauge your response accordingly. A dominant personality may be appeased by showing deference; a detail-oriented personality will want information to completely understand; a shy or reticent personality needs validation that their concerns are heard, and a "pleaser" type personality needs to know that you still value their business and are not "mad" at them. Handle it with style!
51. Judge Judy, Move Over!
One bad situation involved a client who I invited to do volunteer work in South America. Not only was this person "crazy-making" throughout the trip, but when we returned, she threatened to take me to court for services she had already received and a non-refundable training deposit.
What did I do? I prepared my evidence for court and let the magistrate rule on this. I had to return the deposit, but not the other payments. This was a great lesson in judging character and tightening up my policies!
52. Stop Them in Their Tracks!
While making cold calls in NYC one day, I walked into a large reception area filled with waiting reps. I handed my card to the receptionist and asked if I could see the marketing director. He came out, took my card and tore it to shreds, saying he had all of the vendors he needed. Appalled, I said, "You shouldn't have done that because I'm not giving you another one. And when you need my services, you won't know how to find me." He was so shocked that I eventually sold him. He couldn't forget me.
53. Fire Drill
Everyone is juggling to meet ever more stringent deadlines. One of our clients constantly "manufactured" unrealistic deadlines. "Here's a project, due tomorrow." We would jump and disrupt everything to help. Then, he was unavailable to approve the work. It was a fire drill, but we put the fire out. He called with a rush job. We told him it couldn't be done for a week and politely ended the relationship. That was good because now, we have time for our clients with real fire drills.
54. I Said No!
The most difficult client was where I was almost half way through a project. The goals kept changing, their demands kept growing and my frustration was increasing. I knew I wouldn't be able to deliver something that they would be happy about and would get the blame. Even though I needed the money, with a heavy heart, I backed out. I didn't want to be penny wise and pound foolish. Ironically, a few weeks later, a more lucrative project came long anyway! Sometimes saying no is saying yes elsewhere.
55. What Don't You Get?
One of the more challenging clients that I have encountered was a major telecom company seeking to create an elaborate social media plan. The trouble was that when it came to social media, they just didn't get it. They asked all the wrong questions, which meant that my responses were equally as bad. To change course, I offered a new discussion guide geared to prompt a new way of thinking. It worked, and the client gained both a solid social media strategy and a keen understanding of how these channels work.
56. Know When to Fold Them
There is an old song that goes like this:
You've got to know when to hold them.
Know when to fold them.
Know when to walk away.
Know when to run.
Sometimes, no matter the metaphorical cards and literal money on the table, the right thing to do is to fold.
If accountability and responsibility do not align with authority and control, you will not be able to do what you were hired to do. In this case, you should fold your hand and walk away.
Sometimes you run.
I have, can you?
57. Find Common Ground
Parrot back your client's concerns. Ensure that they know you are listening to them and they are truly being heard. Find a common ground where you can meet and resolve the situation in a manner that is satisfactory to both parties. Try to win this battle and you may lose the war. Ultimately, your business will suffer.
Do you have a difficult customer or client experience that wasn’t included? If you do, please share how you handled it below. And as always, many thanks to everyone that contributed to this article!