Strategies for managing difficult customers for small business

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Kudzai Mubaiwa
Every small business needs paying customers to grow. The global mantra “customer is king” is mostly true, but there are instances when this is very difficult to accept. Contentions and conflicts occur in the course of business. This can be due to an error you have made and they give you a hard time for it, or the customer might just be one of those people that is not that easy to please, or is having a bad day.

Whichever way, difficult or unhappy clients are a fact of life for the small business owner. Here are some ways to deal with such a situation.

Firstly, appreciate that this will happen. Embrace the fact that you will encounter difficult customers and even your happiest ones may sometimes express dissatisfaction.

Psyche yourself for both moments, but also put everything in perspective by knowing that the majority of your customers are happy. In business you cannot please everyone all the time. You are better off preparing yourself for those inevitable incidents.

Listening is the most important thing when dealing with an irate person. This action alone has the potential to de-escalate the stickiest of situations. It is particularly valuable when you have made a genuine error and are in the wrong.

Allow the client the opportunity to vent without feeling silenced or hearing you justify yourself. Ensure that you listen with a view to understand, not with the intention to answer back and in the process, further offend them.

One can only speak so much so the tirade will end. At that point, gently speak — recapping what they said so that they are sure (and so are you), that you heard them right.

Reflect on the issue that is raised and as objectively as possible, pinpoint areas where you could have done better. Place yourself in the said client’s shoes and see if there are things you could have indeed done better. Seek to understand the situation from their perspective first.

However, this does not mean that you crucify yourself. There are situations where you may be right yet dealing with an unfortunately extremely sensitive client.

Thankfully, most clients that fit this category tend to also reflect after and may revert apologising for overreacting.

Be wary of boundaries too, one must not then accept abuse in the name of retaining clients.

Respond graciously, whatever the mode of communication is — face to face interaction, an email or a phone call or letter.

In fact, as much as is possible, document your response so that there is a record of the interaction. Be sure to use a tone that is as neutral as possible, and to very clearly and unambiguously apologise for their negative experience. It is never a good idea to communicate when you still feel emotional; this can easily disintegrate into a rough exchange and is of no benefit to either party. Aim to be the level headed one in the interaction, and this means a fine balance of empathy, reasonability and professionalism.

Consider the cost of correcting. Start from an angle where you assume all costs related to rectifying the issue.

Compute what it would mean in monetary terms and see how it compares with the past, present and future value of the relationship. Where the cost is significant but you are at fault, it is advisable to do the needful.

Where the cost is notable but there is room to meet halfway, propose the option. Where it is small and you are liable, by all means pick up the entire cost and save the relationship. Sometimes though, you may have to politely and professionally show the client that they will have to bear the cost if they are clearly at fault.

Some situations come up when communication breakdown occurs and there is misinterpretation of scope, level of effort, deadlines. Scope creep is a big issue especially in an economy like ours.

Some customers will feel that since they are paying you, they have rights to max out their dollars by heaping more work, and these need to be managed. Often this reveals weak engagement from the onset; one must ensure both parties fully understand the work to be done and related resources, as well as timelines.

Contracts are extremely useful, and protect both sides as they lay out expectations. They need not be long and/or fancy but they must simply note the work to done, the responsibilities and rights of each party, the remuneration, a provision for treating disagreements. A detailed email can achieve the same. Most customer issues stem from simple unmet expectations.

A simple example is a design business that makes logos for clients. It would be reasonable to advise that their package offers three logo options, and when you select one, you get only two reworks beyond which you would have to pay extra. Such an arrangement protects the worker but also manages the client.

Related to this is the need to have a single point of contact in dealing with queries. It is extremely trying for customers to deal with a new face over the same issue and have to explain over and over again.

Select a person who is wired to be patient and can be humble enough to say the magic words, “We are sincerely sorry” when things go wrong. Their physical demeanour also matters; they must be folks that can easily smile — for body language is everything. As the business owner, if your ego and default expressions will not allow, then get the most  pleasant of your staff to do it.

Relationships are fragile things that take time and effort to build, hence it is important to have a dedicated person to defend, and sometimes salvage, them.

A certain good book speaks about gifts as a means of pacifying an angry man. Offer something on top of what is due to clients, it could be simple branded promotional material or something more personal like a choice gift or a meal with senior management.

Everyone loves being appreciated, no matter how small the effort may seem. The goodwill gesture will count for a lot.

If all the above fails, you may be better off letting go of some clients. When they begin to threaten and abuse you, politely but firmly stand your ground and diplomatically communicate the truth.

Do not make any extra effort to reach out, so that with time they self-censor and either stands down, or possibly never return.

Business requires one to deal with many others, not just one customer that will not see reason. In fact, one may lose good employees by overindulging bad customers.

As such, it will continue to be a juggling act to secure and retain the best clients, so that the business continues as a going concern. Train your staff on this. Use simulations and also bring them in on live situations that are not sensitive. Customer care capacity building will never go out of fashion and will ensure you build the right business legacy.

Feedback: Twitter @kumub, Email kudzi@investorsaint.co.zw

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