Everyone has a horror story about dealing with a difficult customer, 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 difficult customers - and here are mine.
Deep breath. Ready? Let's go!
It doesn't help to know how to deal with a difficult customer if you’re already in the midst of it, but if you’re not yet, 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 that a potential customer may just not be worth it:
They really, really haggle with you over price. I’m talking about the kind of haggling that makes you uncomfortable or to feel like your services are undervalued. If a customer is giving you a lot of grief over your prices, there's a good chance 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. This indicates not respecting your time or expertise on what you do.
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.
Along with understanding the warning signs of a difficult customer, it's also important to protect yourself from possible lawsuits from them. Unfortunately, unhappy customers can also be lawsuit-happy.
You may be thinking--I'm just trying to understand how to deal with difficult customers, why do I need to worry about insurance right now?
Well, the reality is that lawsuits are more common than you may think--43% of small businesses are at some point faced with a civil suit. And these lawsuits can cost you a lot of money. The average property damage claim alone is $30,000.
The financial burden on your business, not to mention the time it takes to file the claim and deal with the lawsuit, could put a huge drain on your responsibilities as a small business owner.
Unfortunately, no matter all we do to prevent accidents, they still can occur (even at no fault of our own). I suggest considering looking into a business insurance policy. Securing coverage is a great way to be proactive about avoiding mishaps that may happen down the road. Coverage can help you protect yourself from being financially, emotionally, and mentally burdened with the occurrence of a potential lawsuit.
If you're unsure of what that may mean for you financially, we have a free quote comparison tool here you can use to find out.
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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 though I hate admitting this, there were a few instances where I ended up being the problem.
That’s why it’s important to give an unhappy 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.
When it comes to knowing how to handle a difficult customer, a lot comes down to communication. I’ve dealt with a lot of customers that struggled to communicate 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, I slow down and really take time to listen to what they're saying.
Sometimes, the struggle of communication can be decreased if we take less time to think about how we'll react while they're communicating, and really take in what it is they're saying to us.
This practice of empathetic clarification is called "active listening" and when it's applied to your customer's needs, I've found that it's hugely helpful in the clarification of an expectation, as well as helping the customer to feel heard.
After practicing active listening with the customer, you may be able to use one of the following questions to help calm a difficult customer down, while also clarifying the you the info you need
Notice how all of the above questions give the customer a chance to confirm what you’ve said about their own expectation of your work. It’s a neat little trick that helps the customer feel more empowered and heard--while giving you the info you need to move on from the situation.
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.” So in that case, you may be wondering how to deal with a difficult customer who keeps changing their minds.
Once you've clarified what it is your customer wants, 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 an electronic copy saved), 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. This kind of written communication can also help you to avoid communication down the road about late payments.
One of the most valuable customer service tips I've learned is knowing when to tap out. You may not be the right person who knows just how to handle a difficult customer--and that's OKAY. It's not always a bad idea to ask for help by bringing in support and asking another employee, if you have one, to help with the customer instead.
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. Sometimes having a fresh face to communicate with can help a project move along more smoothly.
I won't spend time talking about this now, but this is a really good reason why it's important to hire employees that can step in for you. 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!
To put it bluntly, there are people out there that are just jerks. So it stands to reason that one of those people will walk through your business’s door someday and turn into a difficult customer.
When that happens, one of the customer service tips I stand by is that there’s sometimes nothing you can do but accept that this person won't be the easiest to work with and use the story to win at “customer horror story” contests. In cases like these, I've had to swallow my pride and do what I can to be the bigger person--remaining outwardly positive and still excited about the project.
But, please know-- 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.
We're not about quitting here, 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 metaphorically washing yourself of the responsibility and work.
I'll be honest--you’re the one who usually ends up getting hurt in this situation. Only “take a bath” if a difficult customer 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.
This is a last resort for sure, and not a decision I would make lightly about any client (unless there was abuse involved), but there's a chance that sometime in your career as a small business owner, you'll have to cut ties with a difficult customer completely. You may lose out on money, but that could be potential gains in time and energy you can spend on other customers who are much more pleasant to work with.
One of the best ways to deal with a difficult customer is to prevent it before it happens. Easier said than done, right?
The 8 tips above are great tools to keep in your business owner toolbox to help you handle tough situations with difficult customers. But don't forget that the situations they're helping you with are great learning tools in themselves. If you have to deal with a difficult customer, then the best thing you could do is take what you've learned so it--fingers crossed--doesn't happen again.
I won't lie to you--figuring out how to handle a difficult customer is an emotionally exhausting experience. It can take a lot out of you! Something I always try to keep in the back of my mind is that although a customer may be hard to deal with in one situation, sometimes there's the possibility that the person turns into a loyal customer.
Having experiences with tough to handle customers can help you learn more than you could ever have imagined. As hard as they were, they helped me build my resilience as a business owner and when it comes to customer service tips, I've gained several new lessons to add to my book.
Hopefully, using tactics like asking for help, practicing active listening, giving customers the benefit of the doubt, and the others above will help you as you wade through muddy waters.
Don't worry, you got this!
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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