Everyone has a horror story about a customer from hell, and I’d like to tell you about mine.
I had a client hire me to write a couple of guidebooks for teachers who wanted to prep for their certification tests. It was a huge project, so I was ecstatic to take it on...until the horrors started. My client decided to continually change the original project goals, resulting in more than a few huge revisions. Then he decided to have his admin manage his communications, and it took weeks to get her up to speed on the purpose of the project (it’s still one of the longest email chains I’ve ever been involved in).
When I finally finished the project two months after the original deadline (thanks to the revisions), the client completely disappeared, leaving me stuck with an unpaid invoice worth thousands of dollars.
It was certainly a learning experience, and it’s not one I ever want to repeat again.
Needless to say, difficult customers can be seriously draining on your time, emotions, and finances. That’s why every small business owner needs a few good strategies on how to deal with customers from hell - and here are mine!
Know the warning signs when you see them.
So this doesn’t help you if you’re already in the midst of customer hell, but if you’re not, this is probably the most important piece of advice I can give you. Most difficult customers have a few signs that they’re going to be pains in the you-know-what. If you know what these signs look like ahead of time, you might be able to pass up on working with that client or go in armed with more info.
Here are just a few signs of someone who might end up being a customer that’s just not worth it:
They really, really haggle with you over price. I’m talking about the kind of haggling that makes you uncomfortable or like your services are undervalued. I guarantee that if a customer is giving you a lot of grief over your prices, they’re going to give you grief everywhere else.
They give you unrealistic deadlines, even after you inform them that your work will take longer.
They’re really difficult to get ahold of, but they’re the first ones to complain if you take longer than a day to respond to a phone call or email.
They won’t put things into writing, especially if they want to make changes to the original project contract or order.
While these are the biggest warning signs of a difficult customer, I would also advise you to trust your gut. Sometimes you just know when a customer is going to be more trouble than they’re worth.
Give them the benefit of the doubt.
I’ve definitely had moments where I thought that a customer was going to be a major pain, but it turned out they were just passionate about their project. And, even thought I hate admitting this, there were a few instances where I ended up being the problem.
That’s why it’s important to give a customer the benefit of the doubt before labeling them as difficult or impossible to work with. Maybe they’re just passionate, or maybe the two of you have different communication styles. Take a step back and try to see it from their point of view. If you can understand where they’re coming from, use that empathetic view to communicate with them differently.
So what happens if you’ve done this step and you still think the customer is being unreasonable or downright outrageous? That’s when you move on to these next few steps.
Get everything in writing.
Clients who keep changing the project goals or milestones are huge pains, especially because they’ll usually be the first ones to refuse to pay you due to “not delivering on the original project.”
That’s why it’s important to get anything and everything in writing. If a customer wants to make a change to the original project plan or ask you for extra work, don’t progress forward with it until it’s been clearly mapped out in writing, with both of you signing off on the changes. That way, if the customer complains that you’re not doing what was asked, you have something in writing to point back to.
Ask for clarity.
I’ve dealt with a lot of customers who have difficulty communicating what they were asking for, so they ended up getting frustrated when I didn’t initially understand them. That’s why, if a customer is giving you a tough time, take a second to clarify what they’re trying to ask you. Here are a few clarifying questions that might help calm a customer down while providing you the info you need:
Notice how all of the above questions give the customer a chance to confirm what you’ve said or clarify what they’re trying to say. It’s a neat little trick that makes the customer feel more empowered while giving you the info you need to move on from the situation.
Be the bigger person.
To put it bluntly, there are people out there that are just jerks. So it stands to reason that one of those jerks will walk through your business’s door someday. When that happens, there’s sometimes nothing you can do but accept that this person is an ass and use the story to win at “customer horror story” contests.
But this doesn’t mean I’m telling you to put up with downright abusive or belligerent customers. If someone is being abusive to you or your other customers, you have every right as a business owner to kick them out of the store or to tell them to stop contacting you.
Have someone else communicate with the client.
If you’re in a long-term project with a client and they’re really working your last nerve, it might be worthwhile to farm out communications to an admin or someone else in your company.
Find someone who’s really good at managing customers or has a thick enough skin to deal with clients when they’re unhappy. It’s just one more thing off of your plate!
Take a bath.
Not a literal bath, but there is something to be said for just putting up your hands and cutting ties with the customer’s project. I refer to this as “taking a bath,” because this usually means giving up on future payments or letting the client have the work you’ve completed without charge.
You’re the one who usually ends up getting hurt in this situation, which is why I always recommend it as a last resort. Only “take a bath” if a client has become so demanding and unreasonable that it’s starting to affect your mental and physical health, or you’re spending so much time with them that you haven’t been paying attention to other customers.
Have you ever had a customer from hell? Share your stories with me, I’d love to hear them!
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I love writing about the small business experience because I happen to be a small business owner - I've had a freelance copywriting business for over 10 years. In addition to that, I also head up the content strategy here at Simply Business. Reach out if you have a great idea for an article or just want to say hi!
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