How To Deal With Difficult Customers

While dealing with complaints is never fun, there are methods for turning the situation to your advantage. In most cases you can literally take a negative and turn it into a positive. Before we dive in let’s dispel a myth.

No, The Customer Is NOT Always Right

This isn’t to say that the customer cannot be right. There are many circumstances where a customer is justified in complaining. No business is perfect. It is up to you to take an unbiased look at your business practices and see if the customer is indeed right. Always remember that an essential part of making your business successful is to identify and correct shortcomings.

Having said that, in a properly managed, organized and monitored business, it is far more likely the customer is wrong.

Dealing with customers that are incorrect in their assumptions is an art in itself. In most cases the issue won’t go away by pretending the customer is right when they clearly are not.

Preparing for Battle

Before confronting any complaints it is very important to get all your ducks in a row. Information is power. Information is essential. However, most business people jump straight into replying to that email or picking up the phone and dialing the customer. In most cases this technique is destined for failure.

Excluding issues where the company you represent is clearly at fault, most problems are the result of a breakdown in the chain of communication. For example: You may have said one thing to your customer but they understood something completely different.

In the real world this sometimes happens because there is a miscommunication. But sometimes it can happen intentionally. Intentional miscommunication (or misrepresentation) happens when a client willfully pretends that there was a misunderstanding. In most cases this is because the customer wants to compensate for their own mistakes.

Here is an example of “Intentional Miscommunication” that happens on an almost daily basis in businesses that deal with a lot of clients: The customer says that you or your team did not tell him an important piece of information – even though you are sure that you provided that information to the client.

Listen And DON’T Interrupt

It’s human nature to want to interrupt someone, especially if what they are saying is completely wrong. Do NOT do it! Listen carefully even if you know what they’re saying is not true. There are three main reasons for this:

  • Tweak Your Business – If the customer is correct, you will gain knowledge on how to make your business better and avoid this issue the next go-around.
  • Deflate Their “Balloon” – A lot of time customers just want to vent. Assuming they are not belligerent, taking a few minutes to listen to their complaint will take most of the ‘air’ out of it. You want to avoid cutting them off especially in the initial stage so that you have a good grasp on their argument. Nothing irritates a customer more than canned replies from people that did not take the time to understand what they were saying.(We will address over-compensation and closing a pointless conversation next)
  • Gather Information – The more information you gather the better you will be positions to rebut arguments the client brings up.

Ask Yourself: What’s My ROI Cutoff?

This is real world advice. As such, no real preparation would be complete without asking yourself what your ROI (Return On Investment) cutoff is? To put it more bluntly: How far are you willing to go before dealing with the difficult client is not worth it?

There are many situations where a business decides to keep the relationship with the client going way past its value or profitability. Clients that constantly have issues may not be worth the investment of time and effort when compared with the benefits that the same customer brings to your company.

You need to have a clearly defined red line and stick to it. For a better understanding on how to determine your client’s worth check out the “How Much Is Your Customer Worth In The REAL World” article. The gist of it is this: You must determine how far you’re willing to cater to your customer.

Stop The MoJo Destroyer

Most business owners go back and forth between handling difficult clients, managing their business or team and planning for the future. The latter activities necessitate strong mental skills and a positive attitude – your mojo. Making that tweak to your business that will increase profits or leading your team so you can optimize your business can’t be done while you feel ‘drained’. It may not always be possible but if you can, try setting time aside for dealing with difficult clients so that your state of mind affected as little as possible.

For example: If you have a highly important meeting you should avoid talking to the client until after the meeting. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you have a lot or work to get through but the thought of dealing with the problematic client is weighing heavily on your mind, it may be a good idea to get it out of the way as early as possible.

Rules Of Engagement

Now that we’ve got all that sorted out it’s time to ‘march into battle’. Whether by phone, email or in person, keep in mind the following:

Be Polite But Firm

In most cases being either too confrontational or too acquiescent yields little to no results. We are not looking to approach our client with a “get in their face” attitude. But we should also NOT ignore things that are demonstrably wrong just to avoid confrontation with the client.

A professional tone with many facts to back it up is the best approach in the majority of situations.

Pull up all the communication records and counter any wrong statements that the customer makes. If you’re using G.O. Data Hub then 90% the battle is already won (we’ll discuss that later).

Details Win

Let’s say the client states we never sent them the quote. Which of the following makes a better argument?

1) We sent you the quote.
2) On Monday, April 12th at 9:47 AM we sent you an email with the quote.

The second example is buttressed by solid details which make it stand out and become much harder to dispute. Details win so whenever you can use lots of details to win.

Take it one step further (especially if you’re a G.O. Data Hub user) and go for the “knock out” by pointing out that to the client that he replied confirming the quote receipt on April 13th at 1:29 PM.

Lather – Rinse – Repeat

Don’t be afraid to repeat your arguments over and over again, as many times as it takes and as many times as the client brings up the same issue. Many business people feel awkward about repeating the same thing again and again. A common tactic for customers is to bring up the same problem over and over again and see if the response changes. In the example above, the customer complained that they never received a quote. Most business persons will reply to that arguments with: On Monday, April 12th at 9:47 AM we sent you an email with the quote which you confirmed by email on April 13th at 1:29 PM.

But problematic customers will bring up the same exact issues minutes later, as if they forgot what you just explained to them. In the majority of cases the business person feel awkward about repeating the same explanation again. DON’T do that.

If a customer brings up an issue for which they were initially given an answer, make sure that you answer them by repeating the argument. Don’t be embarrassed about repeating yourself. If the client isn’t embarrassed to bring up the same issue 100 times, don’t be embarrassed to give them the same answer 100 times.

Keep Your Powder Dry

This is a simple concept. Escalate explanations as the client escalates the issue in order to match them. Let’s illustrate this using the example above:

Client: I did not get my quote.
Office: Sorry to hear that but I see here we did send your quote.
Client: I didn’t get it.
Office: I see it was sent on April 12th at 9:47 AM.
Client: Really? I didn’t get it.
Office: Actually as I’m looking at your records I see that you replied back confirming you got the quote on April 13th at 1:27 PM. Would you like me to forward you a copy of your email confirming that you received the quote?
Client: I apologize, I must have forgot.

Notice how all throughout the conversation we keep our powder dry and slowly add to our argument as the client continues to claim they did not receive the email. This is a very powerful technique in matching the client.

Set The Target And Don’t Stray Off The Path

Another popular technique that difficult clients employ is straying off the path. For example they’ll start talking about how they didn’t receive a quote by email. When you point out that they did they’ll quickly pivot and complain that you didn’t call them when you said you would. If you answer that concern with solid arguments they’ll drop it and move on to the next topic of discontent.

It is very important you DON’T follow them. Stick to your path and bring them back to the straight and narrow.

To do that, we need to set the “target”. The target is the motive for them being disgruntled. You should limit it to one single issue if possible. Chasing too many ‘rabbits’ is not to your advantage. Also, multiple complaints (that are not warranted) indicates a customer that is actively looking for reasons to be upset.

Make sure you pin down the customer to the main issue. Address THAT issue and don’t go chasing other issues even if the client brings them up.

Let’s go back to our client not having received the quote. Once you explain to them that the quote was sent, they’ll move on to another complaint.

Slowly bring back the conversation and tell them that you want to address all their concerns but we need to finish them one at a time. Ask them if they agree that the quote issue is settled and they received it. Politely but firmly bring them back to the “path” and having them admit the issue was not as they presented it. This way you will have eliminated most of the other complaints.

The customer will quickly realize that you will not move on and let them make tons of unfounded accusations. They will have to make each claim individually and wait for you to respond to it. This will quickly take the wind out of the sails of most chronic complainers who revel in just accusing but recoil at the though of having each of one of their accusations thoroughly investigated.

Equip Your Business For Success Against Difficult Clients

A little preventative action can go a long way towards avoiding or minimizing problems with difficult customers down the line. As such you should strive to implement the following.

Keep Meticulous Records Of All Communications – Have a cross-referencing database of communications that separates them by users and interaction with clients, while at the same time being able to restrict sections to defined periods of time. This will be as good as gold later on when  you interact with difficult customers.

Integrate Work Tracking At The Team And Individual Level – Setting jobs and tasks for you team should be monitored and recorded at the macro and micro level. This allows you to investigate and track all the potential issues early (before interacting with the customer) or later on when trying to deal with problems.

Document Difficult Customers Workflow Techniques Specific To Your Business – Sometimes issues require more specific and in-depth workflows in order to deal with the problematic client. You should implement clear and well defined documentation that addresses those issues that are specific not only to your industry but also to your particular business.

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