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Kevin Nolan

We hate to admit it, but we’ve all had them. It’s the really tough or impossible-to-please customer. Some people are just tough. Some even purposefully make themselves difficult to please. As soon as they know they are really going to have to pay for something, they flip the switch. What’s worse, if not managed properly, these people can take up more of our resources and energy than the other 99% of customers combined. Every hundred or so customers, it seems, one pops up and rocks my world. And they always will. So, it’s important to come up with some strategies for dealing with these issues.

I had a “job gone bad” last fall that still gets me all worked up. I will not labor you (or myself) with the nitty-gritty. Suffice it to say, this customer was really tough. They complained constantly, wanted to see me every day, they were mean to my people, and they even accused us of telling lies. After a couple of days, I finally had enough. My team is more important than this one customer. So I gave them their deposit back and we agreed to make the contract null and void.

First, let’s agree that we’re talking about probably 1% of the customers we work with. They are outliers. It’s a tiny portion that only feels bigger. You always have to remember this context. You have so many more good customers than bad. Don’t let “head trash” force you into indentured servitude to a bad customer. Be ready to deal with it!

Probably the most ideal strategy is to try to make the “Difficult Customer” determination before we ever do business with them. Having worked for thousands of customers over the last 34 years, I do get a good read on people and if I see a red flag when I am on the estimate, I make adjustments.

There are a number of ways to accomplish NOT getting a job. One way we have probably all done this is by pricing the job too high. It works most of the time, but it can be dangerous. Sometimes you still get the job! Other times they complain to others (or on Angie’s List, etc.) that you are ridiculously priced.

Another way is to just not send them an estimate. I call this “intelligent neglect.” A lot of times this can work because they were just shopping for you, to begin with. Other times, it can backfire. They may get mad and tell others you blew them off. Sometimes, I try this and if they call me to ask for the estimate, I resort back to the high priced estimate strategy.

Still another way is to tell them the truth. You will need to sugar-coat it a little. It might sound something like, “After reviewing the nature and scope of your project I have decided to pass on this opportunity. Thank You.” This can be done on the phone, in a letter, or by email. It is not a good idea to say too much. Avoid saying things like, “you are too picky.” When rejecting them, saying less is more.

But even with these safeguards in place, some still get through. When this happens, pay attention to any nonverbal as well as verbal warnings the customer gives you. If your guys made a lot of dust or something along those lines, apologize and correct whatever needs correcting ASAP — particularly in the beginning. You all know the drill:

  • Listen to the complaints,
  • Don’t talk while they are talking,
  • Thank them for pointing out the mistakes, and tell them that they are on the top of your list.
  • Address them immediately, even if you must pull someone from doing other things
  • Try to talk about the future and how the job will finish up.

If they continue to be a pest on a daily basis, you might move to “intelligent neglect.” Wait a day or so for the steam to go down. Then call them back to say, “My apologies, for the delay in getting back to you. How can I help you?”

Most importantly, when you’ve identified a difficult customer, stay on top of it until you finish the job and you get PAID. Be ready to accept whatever the customer says. Act apologetic even if they are wrong. You don’t have to actually be “sorry” to say, “I am sorry you feel that way.” Of course, if you or your team did make mistakes, then be genuinely apologetic.

In a lot of cases, you will be able to collect payment and move on quickly. But, if there is disagreement about the final price that can’t be negotiated fairly, eat it. Honestly, just take whatever the customer will give you and get out of there. Don’t subject yourself, or your team, to an unreasonable situation for longer than you must. Remember the saying: “If a customer is happy, they tell a friend. If a customer is unhappy, they tell everyone.”

If you are taking money off of the bill, it’s a good idea to get them to sign a release. Something that ensures the customer won’t disparage you in any manner (online reviews or to neighbors and friends). Furthermore, the homeowner should agree to “hold harmless” your company against any damages or liabilities. Finally, the homeowner should agree that the contract is null and void, with no warranty. This would be a mutual agreement and both parties agree that they will not take any legal actions against each other.

Unless it’s really big money, no lawsuits. Law suites don’t work. And they can tie you up for years, all the while stressing you out. You need to go out and meet more nice customers. You don’t want to think that everyone is suspect. You need to trust people and lawsuits can turn a person cynical.

Remember that the extremely difficult customer is an outlier. They’re not the norm (thank God). You must have strategies to deal with outliers, but they are the exception, not the rule. Learn something from bad experience, so as not to repeat it. And be ready to move on. Try to spend the most time with your best customers. Decide today that your employees are more important than an unfair customer or situation. Make that one of your “Company Values,” and seek to live by it whenever necessary.

I admit this is not easy. From my story above, I did remain mad at how my customer behaved for weeks afterward. I felt cheated and I got angry every time I thought about it. In the end, I saw a great quote that helped me get over it and promote my emotional healing.

“Holding onto anger and hatred is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.”

I’m over it.

All the Best

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