Dealing with awkward customers

Awkward customer not playing ball in a board meeting

Hard-to-please customers can pose a dilemma: should you bend over backwards to keep them happy or let their business go? Before you do anything rash, look at your own customer service, suggests Kate Horstead

Every business has demanding customers from time to time - people who repeatedly send back products, make apparently unwarranted complaints or demand something over and above your offer, for example.

How to handle a difficult customer

While it may be tempting to send them packing, it may not actually be the customer who is being difficult.

"The first thing you should do when a customer complains or makes an unusual or extraordinary request is decide whether it is reasonable," says Colin Shaw, founder of customer service consultancy Beyond Philosophy.

"Take a step back and think critically - it could be that your business is at fault, or it could be that they are difficult people who just enjoy being difficult."

If your customer's demands are reasonable, you will have gained a valuable insight into your marketplace. "Most small businesses don't do a lot of customer research," explains Shaw. "Customer complaints are a great source of information for improving your service.

"The customer might be articulating what everybody else is thinking," he adds. "If they're expecting a delivery from you tomorrow and you can't achieve that, maybe your delivery schedules are inadequate and there's a gap in your offer."

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Is the customer always right?

Listening to customers is an important way to keep up with the market and stay a step ahead of the competition. But customers are not always right, and some might be trying to get more than you can reasonably provide. Spurred on by the fear small businesses have of negative feedback, some customers will try to hold businesses ransom by threatening to post a bad online review in order to get compensation, money off or vouchers.

"If you have done everything you can to please the customer and they are still not satisfied, then you need to decide whether you want them as a customer or not," Shaw says.

Suggest alternatives

"If a customer is constantly complaining or trying to renegotiate contracts, consider how much resource they are taking up," he suggests. "Often the resources you are allocating make them unprofitable."

In this case, it might be better to direct the customer to a business that could better meet their requirements. "But it needs to be done in a positive way - you shouldn't be arguing with them," says Shaw. "Just say you are unable to meet their requirements, then recommend two or three organisations they could consider.

"Don't burn your bridges. They could go to these other companies only to realise that you are actually offering a better service."

Choose customer-friendly staff

Awkward customers might actually be flagging up a poor customer service ethos. "We've had clients that call their customers 'punters', or in the case of one airline, 'self-loading freight'," says Shaw. "The culture of those organisations is 'us versus them'.

"Ask yourself if the staff you are employing are the type of people who can build a relationship and talk with a customer," he says. "Businesses need to realise that only a small percentage of customers are genuinely awkward."

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