Ask the CHO: Diplomacy with customers

Say no to difficult customers

An anonymous reader sent me this question:

I’m struggling with my work/happiness situation. I want to be return to graphic design as a career, but I realize that in order to be successful at it, I will have to find a way to become a better diplomat when I come across very difficult clients: clients who think they know better, belittle the importance of the work (“it’s so easy I could do it”), are experts at everything and generally make the creative process hell.

Most people are not like this, but I would like some pointers on the difficult side of pleasing people, while still trying to maintain happiness at work.

Excellent question.

There is one realization that I think every independent worker and startup company needs to arrive at:

Some customers ain’t worth it.

I know that as a fledgling company you may worry about making ends meet and consequently think that every customer is a good customer.

But the fact of the matter is, that some customers are more trouble than they’re worth. They make you fight to convince them of the value of your work, they make every meeting a battle of wills and they demand subservience before they will grant you their business…

Their money may be good – their company, however, is toxic.

I previously wrote two blog posts that touch on this. One is about why “The Customer is Always Right” is wrong, and shows that some customers are not only wrong, they’re wrong for your business.

In another blog post I wrote about how I learned to say “No!” to customers. How some of the toughest most demanding customers may actually come around and respect your work, providing you tell them “No!” when they make unreasonable demands.

So my advice to any contract worker, startup company, independent consultant or is this:

Dare to say No to bad customers!

Yes, you will lose out on some business here and now, but consider the cost of accepting a bad customer’s business. The constant struggle will make you tired, annoyed, depressed, demotivated and much less able to go out and find nice, fun customers.

Working with happy customers, on the other hand, will make you happy. This will increase your energy and motivation. You will do better work. You will get more referrals and more repeat business. You will have more confidence in your own abilities and therefore do better in your sales meetings, getting you even more happy customers.

What’s your take? Have you tried saying “No!” to a difficult customer? What happened? How do you treat difficult customers?

5 thoughts on “Ask the CHO: Diplomacy with customers”

  1. For about 7 years, I taught technical classes for a large company, seeing over a thousand students a year. Many of my colleagues would talk about “bad students” or “difficult students.” In all that time, I honestly only had 2 “bad students.” Why the difference? Am I really that lucky? I think there were a few things that I did that made life much easier for me.

    First, I was clear up front about what I would and wouldn’t do. For example, “I am willing to stay 30 minutes late every day to help you.” I made it a gift to them (I was staying anyway) while setting a limit. No one will respect your limits unless you make them clear.

    Second, I was willing for them to have their own goals and priorities. I didn’t take it personally when they didn’t agree with me. I tried to set things up so they could test their beliefs themselves (easier to do when you are talking about how a computer works, I know). That way I didn’t have to tell them they were wrong, I just had to get them to check things out.

    Third, when I did have to deal head-on with customer disagreements, I was as professional as possible. “You have asked me if I can do this training for 20% less. While I could do 20% less training, I believe that will lead to failure for your project. I can’t do that.” Usually that worked out; and if we lost business, it was only projects that would have failed and left black marks on our reputation. Only once did I have to say “if you don’t agree with my professional opinion on this, you need to hire a different professional!”

    After a few bad experiences in my career, I decided that I would not be bullyed into doing things — or promising things — that I didn’t believe in.

  2. I work for an e-commerce service provider, and although I have more than my fair share of problematic customers, two recent events come to mind on this topic.

    One, a prospective customer was using the “divide and conquer” approach to get our company to agree to changing the terms of service for our service to his benefit – specifically, to provide a money back guarantee where one did not exist before.

    Some of you may be apalled that we don’t offer a money back guarantee, but our service requires effort on part of the customer for the service to provide benefit. Too many people subscribe and expect insta-profits, without the effort. Frankly, if someone promises you a way to make instant profit, be highly suspicious. Success does take effort of some form or another, and those who put the effort in, succeed with us – without having to resort to scamming, pryamid scheming, or other dubious forms of income.

    So, this prospective customer sent multiple e-mails and used our Live Chat system on many occasions to “divide and conquer” – which is my slang term for trying to contact as many different people as possible until you get the answer you want to hear. He browbeat my team with dozens of inane questions and demands, trying to coerce us into changing our terms of service. He even went to the lengths of threatening to slander our company on internet forums because he refused to believe the legitimacy of the company based on our lack of money back guarantee.

    Well, his last e-mail, being the 7th or 8th time he had contacted us, the threats continued, and he demanded that we tell him why he should use our service, and continued to try to ‘logically’ undermine the percieved legitimacy of our company based on our lack of money back guarantee.

    At that time I chose to respond to him. Although I was polite and detailed in my response, advising him of the necessity for effort for the service to be effective, I lead up to the climax of my response with the phrase:

    “we most certainly are not going to reward [our customers’] lack of effort by refunding their money”.

    I haven’t heard from him since.

    Another issue was with a customer who we just couldn’t please – and worse yet, the problem just continued to get worse with some rather unique issues that seemed to plague only her. She was upset, but unreasonably so. She was mean and abusive to my employees, consumed more time from my staff than any other customer, and then opted to take a problem that I had provided resolution on in our last conversation (and kept my promises to) to the BBB the day after said conversation.

    So, to steal a term I gleaned from Alex’s fantastic site here, my VP and I “fired” the customer. In a polite but firm letter, we apologized, and detailed the solutions we took to rectify the situation. And then, we advised that we felt we were unable to satisfy her needs, and would be refunding her subscription fees in full and terminating her account, providing plenty of time to resolve all business with us before termination.

    She was NOT happy. Correction, her initial reaction was that of not-happiness.

    But two weeks later, a very contrite and polite e-mail arrived in my inbox, apologizing, advising that she felt that we had really improved, and that our services were helping her with significant life plans, and would we reconsider?

    We did, and everything has been smooth as silk since.

  3. Hi.

    A friend of mine was recently in the same position as you – he said one book put him on the path to solving his problems. It’s called “How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul”.

    Hope it helps, best of luck with your problem.

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