Market musings

3 Easy Steps for Dealing with Difficult Customers

by Sasha Viasasha
August 22, 2017

Dealing with difficult customers is probably one of the most frustrating tasks a small business faces. It’s easy to get defensive, because difficult customers can be a real threat to your business.

They can end up using more resources then they bring back into the business, and drain you of precious time and energy. However, they can be a source of valuable knowledge, too. There are often important lessons to be derived from the most challenging customers, if you handle the situation well. You can learn more about what your customer needs, expects and values, and you can win a loyal fan and brand advocate.

Other times, you may learn more about what kind of customer your business is set up to best serve, how to communicate better, and to define your product or service more clearly. Sometimes, understanding what you can’t do is as important as understanding what you do well. Recognizing when a customer isn’t a good fit is one possible outcome of a negative interaction, but it should be the last and final step.

The possibility of a negative review or other backlash is just one reason why you should take every customer seriously, stay calm, and deploy a methodical process.

Don’t avoid or deflect negative customers or comments. Face them head on and the peace of mind you will also gain will give you confidence and your brand credibility.

Own the experience

An unhappy, dissatisfied or angry customer is someone out of alignment with your company. The breakdown might be on the customers end, i.e., they may have unrealistic expectations or misunderstand your services, pricing or deliverables, or it might be on your end. Did you overpromise, or deliver a product or service that fell short? A small business is just one point in a complex ecosystem, and you can’t control everything. Perhaps a vendor or supplier let you down. Finding out where the breakdown occurred can help you adjust your messaging, pricing or other variables. But don’t use the knowledge you gain to blame.

However the problem came about, owning the experience is a powerful way of dealing with difficult customers. It helps you establish credibility and reassure someone who is upset. Validate their concerns and needs, take responsibility, and assure the customer you want to help them find a solution. Listen closely to their concerns, ask clarifying questions if necessary, and restate the problem in order to gain a clear picture of the problem. Try to understand the situation from your customer's point of view and establish consensus on the nature of the problem before moving on to step two.

Become a partner

After owning the experience, and giving the customer a reasonable amount of space to vent, invite them to become a partner with you in seeking a solution. A solution that the customer partly owns will ultimately be far more effective than a solution you hand down, however generous. Now that you’ve looked at things from the customer's point of view, you can take back your role as a representative of the business. In this role, you are negotiating from the perspective of your business, but fairly, and keeping in mind the perspective of your customer. Compromise may be necessary, but you can also establish the limitation of your businesses service agreement, or define more clearly the terms.

This step will make clear, also, whether the customer wants to solve the problem with you. If they are stuck in conflict, or just wanting to endlessly vent, there isn’t any reason to continue to engage. Make a few efforts to nudge the customer towards a more productive problem-solving mode, and then you can politely but firmly end the interaction in good faith, knowing that you have done your best. Offer to be available to solve the problem at a future point if appropriate.

Some people are genuinely upset and need time to calm down, but there are some customers who will probably never come to a resolution. Misunderstandings do occur, but in some cases, the customer did understand what they were buying, and they are using emotional leverage to renegotiate the terms of their deal. Your role is a dual one, as an advocate for both your business and the customer. To help you determine whether the customer is being reasonable, think about other customers and how they behave. Above all, stay calm. Getting angry, blaming or accusing will only make a stronger case for an opportunistic consumer looking for an unfair advantage.

Implement a solution

Implementing the solution is the final step to cementing the broken relationship, and the sooner the better. If you are unable to deliver immediately, reiterate the agreement in clear terms, and gain verbal agreement, or even put it into writing. Follow up with an email, if appropriate, and let the customer know how much you appreciate them taking the time to reach out to you with their concern.

Admittedly, there are two kinds of difficult customers: the occasional difficult customer, and the chronic one.  

We’ve all been on the other side of the equation, and felt frustrated when a brand didn’t seem to deliver. Difficult customers are one of the costs of doing business, but there is no reason to tolerate abusive or exploitative behavior.

Perhaps on the best antidotes to the difficult customer is the great customer. Engaging more with your best customers can help you deal more effectively with the difficult ones. Shout out your best customer on social media, send them an appreciative email, or find some other way to let them know how much you value their business. How do they engage with your business, and what is the secret of their success?

Talking to your customers is a great way to learn about how and why people engage with your business, and what success looks like. Don’t wait for a problem to initiate a conversation with your customers. Knowing your customer is the ultimate advantage when things get tough, and can help you stay one step ahead of the competition.

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