How to Handle the Customer from Hell


How Do You Handle an Unreasonable Customer?

We all have had customers from hell. They lie to us. They treat us like dogs. They complain. They squeeze us for every last dollar. So what should you do?

Of course the easy (and often unrealistic) answer is to just get rid of them. Unfortunately these difficult people are sometimes among your biggest and most profitable customers. So is this just the price you have to pay in order to do business with them? Maybe. Maybe not.

Your natural instinct with difficult clients will be to minimize interactions with them, avoid any potentially troublesome topics and NEVER be the person delivering bad news. I am going to humbly suggest that you should first try working against your natural instincts, and in that spirit, here are four guiding principles for dealing with difficult clients:

1. Don’t give up your power.

In every relationship – both business and personal – the relative “power” between two individuals is always negotiated. How many strong business people do you know who have incredible power at work, then the moment they walk through the front door at home they cede power to a spouse, or children, or sometimes even a dog.

The point here is that just because you are the vendor and they are the client (who writes the check or approves the invoices) does NOT mean they have all the power.

img2The only power they have is the power you give them.

In every relationship – both business and personal – the relative “power” between two individuals is always negotiated. How many strong business people do you know who have incredible power at work, then the moment they walk through the front door at home they cede power to a spouse, or children, or sometimes even a dog.

So if a client is treating you like dirt, on some level you are giving them the power to do so. This does not mean you have to walk away (but that option should always be on the table). It does mean that when the client steps out-of-bounds, you need to find a way to professionally and directly address the issue.

For example, if a client is harsh or abrasive, you might ask “is everything OK?” And then follow-up with “You just seem a little on edge today, so I wanted to be sure everything was OK with you.” This lets the other person know that you NOTICE their edgy behavior and find it to be ABNORMAL. Just a simple observation like this can begin to subtly shift the power, because you are putting them on notice that this type or behavior is not accepted as “normal” and you will be amazed at how quickly their behavior can adjust.


2. Spend MORE time with them.

You aren’t the only person avoiding them. Generally those client who are difficult for you are also challenging for others, including their subordinates and peers in the workplace. They are used to having people feel uncomfortable around them, and may even take a perverse pride in knowing they make others nervous.

So why in the world would you go out of your way to spend time with this person? Well, first of course this person is a client and has an impact on your livelihood. But over the years I have found that the vast majority of people who appear to be “jerks” in the workplace are in fact quite reasonable and professional people. They may lack certain interpersonal skills or have difficulty relating others. But many times they are under enormous stress and pressure, are working harder than anyone knows, and actually feel bad when they occasionally snap at someone.

So take the time to get to know this person. Invite them to lunch (I can almost guarantee you they are rarely invited to lunch by others) or schedule a meeting to gain a deeper understanding of their perspective on the business. You don’t have to become best buddies, just go out of your way to spend some time with them.

You may find there is a real person inside that hard crusty shell. Of course you also may find that inside the crusty shell is noting but more crust. That’s OK too.

I have an abrasive sales training client who for years could never bring himself to say anything good about the workshops I facilitated. After every workshop we debriefed and he always had a long list of “improvements” for the next session. I dreaded those conversations because they typically happened at the end of a full day of training. After pouring out my soul during a long workshop, the last thing I wanted was a “constructive dialogue” for improvement.

In addition, he never submitted my invoices to accounting until after I called to remind him. And these calls usually included additional “constructive dialogue.” Now to be fair, he did eventually pay every invoice and he kept hiring me so I assumed he must have seen value in the programs.

So late one afternoon, as I was wrapping up a workshop and gathering all of my materials, he approached me with his list. But I hadn’t eaten lunch (big mistake) and I could feel myself starting to tense up. Luckily, instead of snapping at him, I asked him if we could go somewhere and perhaps review his notes over dinner. He was surprised, but agreed. It was a strange experience, going to dinner with someone I didn’t really like very much. But we ended up having a great dinner conversation. And he forgot to bring his list out until the very end. He did review it with me, but with a warmer, friendlier tone than I had ever experienced with him before. To be accurate, his tone wasn’t really warm – just warmER than in the past.

We both actually enjoyed the dinner conversation, and this started a new pattern for us. While he continues to be a bit of a pain in the neck to this day, we almost always go to dinner to review his list, and I think we both actually look forward to it. We have found a few things in common, and I think I have become one of his very few real “friends” in his work environment.

3. Step into the natural tension of difficult conversations.

On those occasions where there are difficult issues that need to be discussed, rather than avoid them, step right up and engage as quickly as is reasonably possible. If they are late in paying an invoice, pick up the phone right away and ask about it. If the budget for a project is going to have to be increased, don’t delay the conversation – step right up to it.

 I am not saying that these will be easier conversations because you engaged in them proactively. But you want to gain a reputation with this difficult person, that you are someone who can be counted on to deal with things directly and quickly.

Generally people who appear to be rude or abrasive in the workplace are in fact just highly impatient. They need to get things done, and are impatient with others who don’t seem to have the same sense of urgency.

Of course when you step into the natural tension of a difficult conversation you need to be conscious to the pressure/discomfort experienced by the other person and ensure that the tension is productive, not destructive. (see chart below)

Natural_TensionBe aware that sometimes difficult people have a much higher tolerance for tension and pressure, so what feels incredibly uncomfortable for you may feel perfectly fine and natural for them.

So go ahead and SHOW them how different you are. Show them your commitment to clear and confident and quick communication – especially when it comes to difficult issues. They may never tell you, but they are likely to be impressed.

4. Clarify roles and set boundaries.

As a training vendor you probably have certain assumption about your role and responsibilities. But how clearly do you clarify these expectations with your training clients? Over the years I have encountered numerous situations where the client’s expectations were very different from mine. And even if there is no mismatch, it never hurts to clarify.

  • When should invoices be submitted?
  • When should you expect payment?
  • If the client has an issue or problem, how quickly/proactively should they address it with you?
  • How much post-training support should the client expect at no additional cost?
  • How is the effectiveness of the training going to be evaluated?
  • How proactive should you be in proposing additional training solutions?
  • What are the responsibilities of the client organization in terms of logistics, communication and consistency?

These are just a few of the issues that should be clarified from the start. Sometimes as trainers we are great at delivering a profoundly impactful workshop and ensuring that it meets the client’s expectations, but we aren’t as great at setting boundaries or clarifying the responsibilities of the client organization. And this sometimes leads to mismatched expectations, disappointment, and conflict (either overt or under the surface).

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