We all have ‘em – you know, the folks who make you cringe when you see that they’re calling. The ones who drain your energy, criticize everything, and are slow to pay, to boot. Difficult customers exist in every business, for every company, and even though you may want to kick them to the curb some days, you know that it’s better to keep them if you can.
Here are the inside secrets I’ve found for making dealing with difficult customers a little less painful.
1. Choose your words carefully. I was working with a client, advising him on some better business strategies, and he was complaining about one of his difficult clients. I sat in on one of their meetings, and I could tell right away that it was my client’s words that were creating the tension, and my client wasn’t even aware of it. For example, my client said they would “hash out the details” at a later date, and his customer cringed. His customer tended to use less confrontational terms like “bring clarity” rather than “hash out.” I suggested that my client listen carefully in their next meeting and mirror the terms that his customer used. It worked like magic. They were on the same page, accomplishing what needed to be done, with zero conflict. Mirroring your customers’ words puts them at ease and assures them that you understand their needs.
2. FroMLE. This little gem has gotten me through many a difficult conversation with everyone from clients, to relatives, to friends. It stands for “from my limited experience,” and the trick is to add this phrase – mentally – to the end of statements that might otherwise be offensive to you. Say one of your clients tells you – his accountant – that accountants are just glorified calculators. It’s an insulting and infuriating statement, but if you tack on the FroMLE to the end in your head, it softens the blow. He thinks little of accountants because he doesn’t understand the complexity of the work a good accountant does. Try this trick, and you’ll find that it changes your perceptions and makes you far more tolerant of the sometimes idiotic things that emerge from your difficult clients’ mouths.
3. Get to the measurables. There are times when difficult clients – even ones with legitimate concerns – mostly just want to unload on you … at great length … repeatedly. When you find your client making broad generalizations, like “nothing’s working” or “You never finish on time,” then your best bet is to make them get specific. Ask them for specific examples of what troubles them and propose specific, measurable remedies for the problem. Ask them point blank: “If we solve your problem, does that fix this situation?” “If we have it for you by next Tuesday, are we good?” Specifics are your friend when you’re dealing with difficult clients.
4. Acknowledge, but don’t agree. Sometimes agreeing with a client who’s displeased will add fuel to their fire. If you can acknowledge their position and shift the conversation to the resolution – the measurable – you’re moving away from the ranting and toward a solution for their complaint.
5. Pin down the outcome. Keep your focus on what your client wants you to achieve. If you’re running around dealing with petty details, you may not actually be working toward the end goal. Don’t waste your time treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease.
6. Document. Especially with problem clients, I’m a fan of face-to-face or Skype meetings. Why? Because I use the a visual component as a tool for herding the errant client back on topic if they start to stray. I use a whiteboard and jot down the client’s complaints, and as we move through them, if the client starts to rehash what we’ve already settled, I point to the whiteboard and remind them that we’ve solved that problem and we’re moving on.
7. Recognize a real personality conflict. It happens. Sometimes, you’re just going to run into an oil and water scenario, in which you simply can’t find a way to work with a specific client. Your best bet in this situation is to find another member of your staff to assign to the client. If you can, ask the client who they’d prefer to handle their account, so they don’t feel slighted, but rather realize that you’re providing them with exemplary customer service.
8. Fire them. When all else has failed, and when the emotional drain is no longer worth the revenue, it’s best to cut your losses and move on. You get to spend your time working with more productive clients, and one of your competitors gets your irrational client. That’s a win-win.
The vast majority of the time, one of the first seven tactics will resolve your difficult client situation, and you’ll find that if you’re thoughtful, focused on specifics, and speaking your client’s language, that you rarely ever have to cut a customer loose.