Sales & Marketing

Win Over Your Most Difficult Customers

Win Over Your Most Difficult Customers

It can be tempting to write off your most difficult customers as impossible to please. But how you handle temperamental patrons has a big impact on the way other customers and even employees perceive your business. Learn to support your staff in difficult situations-and still win over your toughest critics.

By Tara Remiasz


Sometimes a customer is difficult because he or she has a temperamental personality, but other times it is because there is a legitimate complaint. The following are strategies that fellow small business owners and managers use to support their employees and convert difficult patrons into valued customers.

Make it Personal, but Don’t Take it Personally
When one of Lori Jo Vest’s clients changed production coordinators several years ago, Vest made a trip to meet the new coordinator in person. From the start, it was clear that the new coordinator wasn’t going to be easy to work with, says Vest who is a sales and customer service consultant in Birmingham, Mich., and works with Metro Detroit-based audio and production studios.

“She always seemed rushed and unpleasant,” Vest says of the client. The coordinator’s harsh tone was having a negative impact on the morale of a scheduler who dealt with her on a regular basis. “I’d watch [my scheduler] hang up the phone and her shoulders would just slump,” Vest says.

Vest assisted her scheduler with a bit of advice that she tries to impart on all of her employees, “They are not mad at you, they are mad at the company and you are just a representative. It’s not personal.”

Vest may tell her scheduler not to take the abusive treatment personally, but she also advised her to develop a more personal relationship with the client. “I said, ‘Lets make it a game.’” She told her scheduler to put on a big smile every time the client called, and ask her about her life, ask her how she is doing, ask her how her new cat is. It took between six and nine months for the production coordinator to warm up to Vest’s scheduler, but today she is one of the company’s best clients.

This personal approach is key to transforming a difficult client into an asset. For this reason, Vest prefers to respond to any complaints over the phone instead of through e-mail. “I tend toward the very personal approach, and e-mail is so easy to misinterpret,” she says. “[On the phone] they can hear your tone of voice, they can hear your compassion.”

Having a live operator to handle questions and complaints is key to diffusing a difficult or dissatisfied customer, says Matt Eventoff, president of Princeton Public Speaking, LLC, Princeton, N.J. Eventoff recommends going one step further with the personal approach and giving clients your personal cell phone number. “If you run a pretty small shop, everybody should be of value to you,” he says.

Give Customers a Release Valve
Often, just showing that a complaint is being taken seriously can diffuse a customer’s frustration. Convey that you value his feedback by allowing him to talk to you—the leader of the company—or someone else who is higher up in the business scheme. “At some point the buck does stop,” says Justin Kitch, founder and CEO of Homestead.com in Menlo Park, Calif. “People like having that release valve as high up as possible, but I demand respect as well.”

It’s common for people’s attitudes to cool off when they realize they’re speaking to the CEO of the company, Kitch says. “It’s almost like the answer doesn’t matter. [It’s] just the fact that we’re listening.”

Although it’s a good practice to send difficult calls up the company hierarchy, absolutely never have someone lower on the chain respond to an issue than the original person who took the complaint, Eventoff says. If a complaint is bumped up to you, don’t strategize about how to diffuse the situation while the customer talks, he says. Instead, really listen to what he or she is saying.

Compromise, but Always Get Something in Return
Sometimes, a customer is difficult, not because he is upset, but because he wants you to bend the rules on something such as pricing. In these cases, Vest tries to meet her clients’ requests—at least part way—but she will always ask for something in return. For example, if a client insists on better pricing, Vest will come down from the standard fee. But, she will ask for this client’s word that her company will be his first call every time they are looking for a TV or audio production studio.

Don’t Try to Be All Things to All Clients
One of the best ways to handle difficult customers is to stop a bad relationship before it even starts. When trying to win or keep business, it can be difficult to tell people that your company doesn’t specialize in something they are requesting. But, being straightforward with them can save them and your employees a lot of heartache.

When a client said he wanted Kitch’s employees to design a Web site like Janet Jackson’s, Kitch knew it wasn’t realistic based on this customer’s resources. “There are probably three or four people who maintain Janet Jackson’s Web site,” he says. Kitch’s staff told the client that they would not create a Janet Jackson-inspired Web site, and then they focused on all the positive things Homestead.com could do for the client. The key is to emphasize all of the benefits that your business can provide, without promising something that will lead to frustrations down the road.