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Turning difficult customers around


By: Paul du Toit – regular contributor


Difficult customers can be the bane of our lives, the kind of people who take up large chunks of our valuable time, nit-picking seemingly trivial issues and actually costing us money in the process. They are the kind of folk we’d like to shepherd gently in to a barrel of over-fermented port and roll over the cliffs of Dover. But it’s not always the best remedy for our irritation and here’s why…

There’s a fair chance that, if you find someone difficult to deal with, others may be experiencing the same problem with that person. That person’s experience is that the world is a hostile and unfriendly place with a whole bunch of folk just waiting to get at them. Their response becomes habitual: To give everyone hell most of the time. If you can’t see them coming, you can usually hear them or, at worst, smell the burning rubber! This, of course, places you in the firing line along with everyone else.

Imagine their surprise when, instead of becoming defensive and reactive, you buck the trend and genuinely try to help this person, despite their crabby attitude. Once they’ve got over the surprise of being treated like a valuable human, you may have won yourself a fan! Difficult folk are unpleasant to most other people. They annoy practically everyone. When you make the effort to exercise tolerance which they are not accustomed to receiving, you break the pattern, and could run the risk of discovering the nice person hiding inside them who’s been struggling to come out. So often, your difficult customer is a frustrated person with poor communication skills crying desperately for help.

This tactic may, however, not work with everyone. Some customers respond to your gentle approach by trying even harder to be nasty. So here’s a neat suggestion that may prevent you from slipping over the edge and getting yourself a criminal record.

If you have someone in your organisation performing a similar function to you, suggest a 50/50 swap. You’ll take on a handful of their difficult customers in exchange for a quid pro quo handful of theirs. By each starting on a clean slate with one another’s tough ones, pre-armed with information on that customer, you both have an opportunity to develop fresh relationships knowing what you are going to be dealing with in advance.
Result? Stress reduced, a bunch of thawed out ‘no longer so difficult customers’ and your profitability sustained. All because you were proactive instead of reacting emotionally.

This leads us to an important version of the difficult customer – the complainer. The large corporates that can afford to, have been known to spend hefty sums on customer service surveys to find out what they’re doing right and wrong. The information is often quite general and varied. The cost is high, and goes out of date quickly.

Bring on the complainer: He tells you precisely how you’ve messed up, what you did wrong and what he wants you to do about it. And he costs you nothing because he volunteers the information, usually in detail. The complainer gives us a four-point message:

  1. I’m still your customer (non-complainers just leave you without saying a word).
  2. Solve my problem (quick!).
  3. Make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  4. Maybe someone else is having a similar problem (or most likely 19 other people).

My experience tells me that roughly 9 out of 10 people don’t bother to complain because they’re scared of the reaction they may get. They just take their business elsewhere as it’s less confrontational. Perhaps this gives us a different perspective of the value of our ‘complainer’, or difficult customer versus the irritation factor. Too many companies still sweep their complaints under the carpet or hide them in a secret bottom drawer. ‘Think-ahead’ companies deliberately publish their biggest complaints in their company newsletter and the procedure that was followed by the employee who addressed, followed through and solved the problem. Now this makes sense, and not only creates a positive precedent, but contributes positively to the customer service culture in an organisation.

It follows that being patient with difficult customers or complainers can be very profitable. It also gives you additional confidence in your own interpersonal skills. You’ll agree that turning a difficult situation around is very satisfying indeed! But it takes skills, control and a great attitude to achieve.

  • Being patient with difficult customers or complainers can be very profitable.
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