2004(ish): I was having issues with my wisdom teeth. The pain was horrible, but I was doing my best to work through it. Then, one of my most difficult wholesale customers came in to the store.
I did my best to be polite as she demanded help. I answered her questions, I gave her advice. All the while, my jaw was throbbing, and I was quickly running out of nice.
Then she announced that she needed a particular brown glass bead. She described the bead; I knew the bead, and showed her where it would be, if we had it. Alas, we didn’t have it.
“And why don’t you have it?” she demanded.
“Because we knew you wanted it!” I responded, as I turned around and walked away.
The Customer Only a Mother Could Love
Given enough time in business, we all come across one of these Nightmare Customers. My response really wasn’t appropriate, but sometimes you just don’t know what else to do. For whatever reason, some people just seem determined to be unhappy.
They want you to fix it (yesterday!), they want a discount, they want a bajillion changes (at no extra cost!), they expect you to be on-call 24/7, and while you’re at it, could you do this other thing too? (for free of course)
No matter what you do to try to appease them, it never seems to be enough. You finally come to one of only two possible conclusions; either a) you’re obviously a failure, and ought to just close up shop now, or b) this person is really a demon from hell sent to torment you.
While I wouldn’t entirely discount the demon from hell theory (I’ve worked customer service too many years to dismiss it completely), I’d like to offer an alternative to closing up shop. One that doesn’t involve insulting your customer 😉
Learning to Negotiate
When dealing with difficult customers, we often get caught up in ‘debating’ the details. The problem with debate is that only one person gets to win… the other ends up the loser (and nobody wants to be that person)!
So let go of the debate, remember that you’re in it for the win-win, and prepare to negotiate.
In his book, Getting Past No, William Ury identifies the Five Steps of Breakthrough Negotiation. The first three really provide the foundation for everything else;
*By the way, I highly recommend this book!
Go to the Balcony – Start by stepping back; remove yourself emotionally and remember that this isn’t personal. Rather than reacting to what your customer is saying, take the time to consider the situation calmly. It may feel like your customer is attacking you, but it isn’t really about you (hint: it’s about them). If you think you need to respond immediately, do so, but only to let them know that you are considering the issue carefully, and will get back to them within 24 – 48 hours.
Step to Their Side – Remember, both you and your customer have the same goal; a positive resolution to the matter at hand. They may see you as an opponent, and expect you to act accordingly. Instead, listen to them, acknowledging any points they may have (rather than arguing the points they don’t), and treat them as an ally.
Reframe – When a difficult customer has a complaint, or is making what you feel is an unreasonable request, try reframing it; ask problem-solving questions designed to lead them to a more desirable attitude. Rather than rejecting them outright, reframe!
When All Else Fails
Unfortunately, you may find that even your most diligent negotiations are for naught; no matter how hard you try, there is just no appeasing your Nightmare Customer.
Do you simply admit defeat and refuse to talk to them further? Send them a scathing email detailing just how horrid they are?
As tempting as either of those options may be, they aren’t exactly what I would call a ‘positive resolution’. Rather, consider a few alternatives;
Refer them to someone else – Sometimes our problem customers aren’t really Demons from Hell, they’re just people with a different communication style than ours. Rather than dump them outright, try referring them to someone who may be better suited to their needs.
Finish the job – If you don’t know anyone else you could refer the customer to (or you aren’t willing to subject anyone else to the torment of dealing with them), you may need to bring the job to a conclusion… in a way that makes it clear that this is the end. This might entail doing more work for less money, or giving them that deep discount. I don’t normally recommend giving in to Nightmare Customer demands, but you may ultimately decide that you’re better off ending it than squabbling over the details and continuing your misery.
Cut your losses – When you’ve done absolutely everything you can, and it just isn’t getting better, it’s time to cut your losses. Be as polite as you can, let them know you’re sorry you aren’t able to serve them in the way they need… but make it clear that the relationship is over!
If you’re lucky, you’ve never come across a customer like this. If you’re really lucky, you have, and you learned some great lessons from the experience.
Either way, the best thing you can do in a situation like this, is be prepared!
Create policies that you can fall back on, and put these policies up where customers can easily find them. Your customers need to know exactly how many re-designs they get, or how many hours of your time, or what the refund policy is.
By giving them this information up front, you’ve created a set of expectations that both you and they can be comfortable with. It means less confusion… which means happier customers!
Do you have clear policies posted where your customers can find them? What could you do to let your customers know the rules of your game? Tell me in the comments below!
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