When I was in the distribution business, we joked that life would be grand if we could just get rid of suppliers and customers. Every day, we sacrificed our sanity to satisfy that handful of customers that made excessive demands and unreasonable requests, peppered every conversation with snide putdowns, insisted on premium service at bargain prices and were incapable of saying thank you when we delivered. 

However, after tearing all of my hair out (see bio photo) and replacing it with wisdom, I realized that tough customers are sometimes the best customers, because they forced us to work harder and smarter.

This is how loving tough customers boosts your business.

Tough customers prepare you for the new normal. Being forced to do the impossible for one customer gives you the ability and the will to do more for every customer.  Remember that your competitors face tough demands too; the company that rises to the occasion establishes the new bar.

Think of the U.S. auto industry to see where a lack of will takes you. If you (can) remember back to the 1980s, consumers started demanding the “impossible” – fuel-efficient, safe cars at low prices with no-hassle buying and red carpet service. The first response from the Big Three was to say, “That’s impossible” – and consumers stampeded over to Toyota and Honda, where the “impossible” had already been baked into their business model.

Embrace any opportunity to take your game up a notch – don’t behave like Kruger Industrial Smoothing.

Takeaway: Today’s impossible could be tomorrow’s indispensable.

Tough customers expose internal weaknesses. Customers who roll with the punches lull you to sleep, make you dumb, fat and happy. Why scrutinize purchasing procedures if nobody balks at your price? Why upgrade customer service if nobody rips into you about late deliveries? A positive example of this dynamic at work is Domino’s Pizza, whose ads highlight how brutal customer feedback is inspiring them to get off of their duffs and start rocking and rolling like they used to. A negative example is Best Buy; seemingly oblivious to customer complaints, the company is on the brink of disaster.

Takeaway: It’s easy to blame the customer, but helpful to blame yourself.

Tough customers inspire new products and services. Back to our distribution business, we created a unique online ordering system because a customer put a gun to our head. Although it was a rather expensive and contentious undertaking, the system became a major differentiator, enabling us to secure large new customers. It would have been very easy to tell our tough customer “no dice,” because the cost and internal stress were tangible and immediate, whereas the long-term benefit was vague and distant.

Takeaway: Focus on what customers do for you, not what they do to you.

Quick tips for making your business tough-customer friendly: 

  • Let it be known that you value tough customers. If the staff hears you moaning and groaning, what will they do? Don’t institutionalize mediocrity.
  • Never fire a customer in the heat of battle. Get through the crisis and decide later, when cooler heads can prevail.
  • Meet challenges with creativity. Resist getting locked-in to a certain way of operating; it will blind you to transformational solutions. If you can’t satisfy a customer, have you considered a strategic partnership, different business hours, new billing terms or creating a new product?
  • Be sure you’ve identified the problem. Some customers are tough because they don’t tell you what they’re thinking. A ferocious price complaint, for instance, could really be an exasperated cry for attention. Rather than judge by appearances, do whatever it takes to find out what is really going on.

Over to You

Share your pain about dealing with tough customers. Maybe our blog community can help… or at the very least lend moral support.