The customer isn't always right: How to deal with difficult customers

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Businesses have been pretty much indoctrinated into thinking that ‘the customer is always right.’ The customer has the power and boy, do some of them know it.

I would wager there isn’t a businessman in the UK who hasn’t wrung their hands in despair, whilst a demanding customer asks for that ‘one last change.’ The fact is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Never saying 'no' just results in a huge amount of free consulting and a lack of respect.

This article will examine two paths – one where ‘no’ never enters the business vernacular, and the huge impact experienced as a result of ignoring this small word. The other will outline how a ‘no’ can be used with confidence for dealing with difficult clients and enable the business to take back control.

The ‘never-no’ relationship

The ‘never-no’ relationship normally starts at the prospect stage, when the new client is being won. In hope of winning a new account, a business suddenly forgets it’s a commercial entity and it starts dancing to a prospect’s tune – often without the prospect asking for it.

Rather than spending time qualifying the lead, listening to the issues that the business is experiencing (the “pain”) and agreeing a working relationship that will be very valuable to the prospect they will decide to follow another route. This is a process that takes more time, undervalues their services and sets a dangerous precedent for the relationship moving forwards.

The process will sound familiar – putting together huge proposals that effectively give the prospect the answer (and then some). The prospect will then ask for changes or additional meetings, which will be met with delight as this is construed as ‘interest.’ This time and consulting is also given for free. In the unlikely scenario that it closes, the prospect will then see if there is a way to negotiate on fees. Afraid that the prospect won’t take the product/service unless they cut their fees, this reduction is promptly agreed.

So what do we now have? A new client that has learnt they can get a lot of work for free – a new client that feels that the business is desperate and will effectively agree to anything they ask, whenever they want it.

The no-nonsense business

Take the converse, for example – the businesses that respect its time and services. It also understands that prospects don’t normally want the cheapest option, they want the best. This relationship works as a partnership, where both parties respect each other and are not afraid to challenge and push back on decisions in the interest of getting the best results.

Just think, if you’ve provided the clients with all the answers as part of the tendering process, why would they hire you? In reality, the criterion for appointing a company is not who has all the answers, but who feels like the right fit and who can deliver long-term value. The company that never said no and gave all the free consulting will lose out. If the prospect asks for all of the answers, or a free trial, then stand your ground – your advice/ product has a price tag. It will add value to their business. By showing strength and respect for yourself your company sets an important precedent

Achieving this isn’t easy; it’s difficult to change behaviour. Habits are hard to break. But the pain is worth is gain.

Dealing with difficult clients

The key thing to learn is how and when to say no with confidence - to turn a difficult client into one that respects and values your services. Here are some top tips:

  • Say ‘no’ at the prospect stage - Starting the ‘no’ journey is easiest with new clients. After all, you have a blank slate. That’s not to say that learning to say it is easy. To address and change the cycle, businesses must first understand that they have a choice. This choice isn’t – ‘say no and lose the business’ or ‘say yes and win the business.’ The choice is ‘do I want to be profitable?’  To be profitable, there has to be a commercial awareness on the impact of wasted time – a plan for servicing clients, agreeing where the boundaries lie and a development of dispute resolution processes. Nightmare prospects will only turn into a nightmare client – if ‘no’ doesn’t sit well with them, then its best the business does not progress.
  • Don’t put it off - It is harder to bring ‘no’ into an existing relationship, especially one where the power is badly out of synch. But the longer you wait the worse it will be. If you are doing a good job and delivering value then you are in a good position to discuss the working relationship. An honest face-to-face meeting works best to discuss it.
  • Evidence the success - Ahead of this meeting make sure you have prepared evidence on the value of your work, and instances where excessive time has been spent. Have suggested processes at the ready that will make the relationship more mutually beneficial moving forwards.
  • Think commercially - Clients respect suppliers that respect themselves. What may be a difficult conversation could result in new business, as the client realises that extra work will entail a higher fee.
  • Don’t be afraid to part ways - For those clients that don’t take kindly to having a more balanced relationship, well, it may be time to part ways. If the client has unrealistic expectations and is costing a business money, then the relationship cannot continue.

The power of mutual respect

At the end of the day, a business can’t grow without saying 'no' – try it for a day and you’ll soon realise why ‘no’ is arguably the most powerful word in the business world.

Shaun Thomson is CEO of Sandler Training in the UK.

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