Dealing with Difficult Customers

Dealing with Difficult Customers


The importance of knowing how to deal with difficult customers during the infant years of your new start-up company can’t be overstated. Being equipped with this knowledge and interpersonalskills can assist in ensuring your company’s long-term survival. As cited by Dr David Freemantle, “To create a relationship and therefore a likeable connection with a customer, physical energy is required”.

I would like to introduce you to five customers you have either encountered in the past or will encounter as soon as you open your company’s doors for business.  They are mean!  They are arrogant!  You will require a great deal of physical, mental and emotional energy!  They are your customers! But are they always right?  You decide…

1. Mr Dictatorial Derrick and his girlfriend, Mrs Pompous Priscilla

Derrick and Priscilla are demanding for a number of reasons.  Let’s first take a look at Derrick.  His domineering behaviour is part of his personality.  It may also be his reaction due to a past bad service experience.  Overbearing customers such as Derrick feel the need to be or stay in control and often, such customers are insecure.

How to handle him…

Be professional, don’t raise your voice or fight fire with fire by retaliating verbally.  You are not a child and don’t have to resort to name-calling or shoving matches.  Unfortunately, some adults like Derrick miss their childhood years so much that they regress to childish behaviour.  Demonstrate respect but remain firm and most importantly, calm.  So, even though you may have a vision of lying on a beach somewhere far away like Mauritius where you don’t have to listen to Derrick carrying on and on, aim to work positively towards the resolution of the problem.  Remember to focus on his needs by trying to look past the aggressive behaviour.

Now, let’s take a look at Priscilla.  Unfortunately in life, some people seem to go out of their way to get attention or to be offensive.  She may seem poised and self-assured on the outside, but believe me, she is insecure and defensive.   Priscilla will raise her voice, demand to speak to the manager, use profane language, ignore what you say, attack you personally and like her boyfriend Derrick, go out of her way to be offensive and remain in control.

How to handle her…

If you are anything like me you may want to ask Priscilla whether she forgot to take her “chill pill” this morning.  Fight the urge to say that!  Remain professional and whatever you do, don’t exhibit the same inappropriate behaviour although you may feel the situation warrants it.  Don’t retaliate as you will only pour oil on the fire and embarrass Priscilla, which is the last thing you want.  Remain calm and focus on the problem at hand.  Remember, the reason for her inappropriate behaviour is probably due to some past mediocre service experience she had.  See if you can provide her with an exceptional experience through mending this bad situation.

2. Mrs Chatty Christine

Ever met Christine?  She would phone or meet with you and spend excessive amounts of time discussing immaterial matters such as the grooming of her dog, the weather, her family, her accomplishments, other customer service experiences and what she had for breakfast.

How to handle her…

Refrain from falling into the trap of becoming talkative yourself.  Try to remain warm and amiable but focused.  Appreciate the fact that Christine has an expressive personality and predominantly her natural inclination is to connect with people.  She probably draws her motivation from social encounters and in my opinion, may be the life of the party in less formal social gatherings.  Remain friendly by acknowledging her comments as you continue the conversation to establishing her real needs.  Asking specific open-ended questions and using close-ended questions will assist you in determining her requirements and give the conversation direction.  Remember that she is not your only customer and that your own personal time management is vital.  Keep in mind that you should be diplomatic but to the point.

3. Mr Expectancy Edward

You may know Edward as Uninterested Uma.  They want as little involvement as possible with as little effort on their part… but they expect results.  Both Edward and Uma are uninterested but expect things to get done with very little or no involvement from their side.  They will very seldom provide requested information and will often ask you to complete tasks that are either outside your area of expertise or not within the allowed price they’ve paid.  Edward and Uma’s most favourite excuse is that they don’t have time.  Phrases such as “I paid you for this so I expect it to be done” and “If I knew I had to do all this work myself I wouldn’t have hired you to do it”.

How to handle them…

This is where it gets tricky.  As a service provider, you need to get pushy with Edward and Uma.  Get used to calling and emailing them repeatedly.  Make sure you are transparent about your costs and although you like it not, becoming a nagging supplier is inevitable.  Focus on the facts and explaining the importance of the customer’s involvement in ensuring the success of your service delivery.

4. Mr Know-it-All Newton

Probably one of the most difficult customers to deal with is Newton.  Even though he approached you, he always knows better.  Newton will tell you about his knowledge, experience, accomplishments and why he is the best thing since sliced bread.  He has a very specific idea about what he wants and he has very little interest in your thoughts and your experience as the service provider.  Beware!  Newton has pre-conceived ideas and expectations.  Tread carefully when dealing with Newton because chances are that you will never meet his expectations.

How to handle him…

Some service providers are happy to do exactly what Newton wants no matter what they feel or think of it or whether it is the best thing to do.  If you feel you have an ethical responsibility to point out the pitfalls in Newton’s expectations, you are most probably heading for some degree of conflict.  Newton secretly believes that he could do your job much better and that you have little or no specialist knowledge you can convey.   In some instances, if you agree to do it Newton’s way, he may very well turn around feeling very unhappy about the fact that he had to do all the work himself.  Be very careful to commit to Newton’s expectations and way of doing things.  Be explicit and clear about what you can do, what expertise you can offer and what will be included in the service.  Set the correct expectations before doing the work.  Under promise and over deliver!

5. Mr Wheeler-Dealer Wesley

Wesley doesn’t believe in the price you see is the price you pay.  Phrases like “I’m sure you can sharpen your pencil a bit more,” “how negotiable are you” and “your competitor quoted me 40% less,” is common when dealing with Wesley.  He believes that your first price is just an invitation to start the negotiations.  They like the “buy 1 get 4 free” scenario.  But remember!  If you cut on price you can’t cut on the quality of the service delivery.  Wesley will still expect the same high quality service.

How to handle him…

Firstly, consider the following:

  • Do you want to get involved in price wars?
  • Do you want to be known as the cheapest service provider or rather the service provider with the finest all round service delivery?
  • Can you justify your pricing if you charge a premium for your value-added services and expertise?

The best way to deal with this type of customer is to focus on the facts and reasons for your pricing.  Focus on your sales ability and convincing Wesley that your service has various value added benefits that he won’t find anywhere else.  Never badmouth your competitors by focusing on their flaws and your subjective and/or negative opinion of why they are cheaper.  This is not good business ethics.

Focus on what YOU can offer.  Provide examples and testimonials of past satisfied clients.  Highlight the fact that you offer an exemplary service.  But remember; don’t promise or claim something that you can’t deliver on.  If you fail, Wesley may very well come to haunt you!

Dealing with different customers and different personalities can be very challenging.  But you decide… Is the customer always right? Perhaps not, but saying that to him or her won’t necessarily be the right thing to do.  Your ability to dealing effectively with such conflict and difficult situations will in most cases win you the loyalty of these customers.

Remember, always give your customer quality at the point of contact; in the event of encountering an unhappy customer, use bad experience recovery as your key strategy to turn the situation around to your benefit.  Bad experience recovery is vital!

Dr. Thommie Burger
Founder of JTB Consulting, a leading Business Plan Consultancy that provides practical, unique and affordable Business Consulting and Business Plan Solutions to entrepreneurs, start-up businesses and existing companies. Founder of Animazing, a Marketing Agency that designs unique animated videos; a communication and marketing medium clients use to deliver their messages in an effective, engaging and memorable way. Thommie is a Summa Cum Laude MBA Graduate and holds a PhD in Entrepreneurship and Business Management.
  • @Thommie
    Great article thanks, Ive just dealt with a wheeler-dealer client, wish I read this before I dealt with him. Thank you