A few weeks ago I had the privilege to do a customer service focused guest blog for Rich Gallagher, President of Point of Contact Group on his Point of Contact blog.  Rich has now graciously returned the favor by telling you how to deal with some of your worst clients (before you have to fire them).  Read on: 

Let’s be honest: if you run a small business, some clients are enough to drive you to therapy. Fortunately for you, I am a practicing therapist! And more important, a fellow small business owner. So let’s take a look at how you can use some simple techniques from psychology to get a handle on three common types of difficult clients.

1. Nellie Negotiator

Nellie never takes “no” for an answer – in fact, she chews it up and spits it out. She learned early in life that being pushy and aggressive is the best way to get what she wants. And because she is so uncomfortable to deal with, you usually give it to her.

How to deal with Nellie: Therapists use a technique called “joining” with aggressive people – we see their side of an issue first, in gory detail, because it makes it easier and not harder for us to set boundaries with them. And we always respond in terms of what we can do, instead of what we can’t do. Compare these two examples:

Nellie: I demand a 40% discount.
You: There is no way we can possibly do that.
Nellie: Well, I’ve been using your services for three years now. And I’m important. And I’m …

Nellie: I demand a 40% discount.
You: Of course! Everyone is running on tighter margins these days. I don’t blame you at all for pushing for the best deal. Here’s what I can do for you: I can afford a 20% discount if we could somehow double the volume of business you do with us. Would that be practical?
Nellie: Hmmm … I’ll think about that. But look, I’ve been doing business with you for three years. And I’m important. And I’m …
You: Yes you are! We’ve worked together for a long time, and it’s an honor serving someone as important as you are. So I’m certainly willing to discuss a discount we can afford, based on our volume of business.

What you are doing here is replacing Nellie’s negotiating posture with that look of stunned silence that comes from thinking, “Wait! That’s *my* line!” Keep at it, and you will turn aggression into authentic dialogue.

2. Tommy Talkative

Tommy is a gregarious sort who loves to bend your ear about his boss, his vacation, his kids, even his annual physical – all while you are trying to do business with him. If time is money, he represents a constant withdrawal. And most of us feel stuck between whether to let him ramble on and on, or force them back on-topic and hurt his feelings – or possibly lose his business.

How to deal with Tommy: Talkative people crave attention – so use the “acknowledging close” technique to lavish attention on him while taking control of the conversation. Break in, enthusiastically acknowledge the last thing he says, and then ask a “binary question” – one with a yes, no, or short statement answer. As soon as he responds, BOOM: jump in with the next binary question, and guess what, you’ve taken control of the conversation. Watch this:

Tommy: Boy, my boss has been a pain lately. Look at all the work I have to do! I don’t even have enough time to talk to vendors like you these days. I’ll tell you, things have really changed around here …
You (breaking in): Good point! It seems like everybody is under more work pressure these days. And I respect your time. So what kind of products do you need right now?
Tommy: We need more binders…
You (breaking in): Great! What color would you like?

Done properly, the acknowledging close is not only remarkably effective – it actually makes Tommy feel good, because you are locked in and responsive to everything he says as you take over the reins of the conversation.

3. Cliff the Critic

Do you have clients who are never happy, but never leave? Who always find fault with whatever you do, no matter how hard you try to please them? First, of course, look in the mirror: most complaints are valuable feedback that need to be taken seriously. But if all of your other clients treat you like a rock star while Cliff is constantly a malcontent, then maybe – just maybe – that’s his nature.

How to deal with Cliff: Most people wonder what to say to a ceaseless critic, when you should really be thinking about what to ask. Good questions – like “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?” or “Who has made you really happy with this in the past?” – accomplish three important things: they take a learning posture that lowers the heat, they give you valuable information, and perhaps most important, they hold the other person accountable every time they let loose with another barb.

Whatever your own clients do to frustrate you, the good news is that you have more power in these situations than you think. Particularly when you look at what decades of psychology research have told us, and “shrink” to the occasion. Best of success!

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