Monday, February 6, 2012

Dealing with Difficult Clients

I’ve been dealing with a couple of difficult clients lately. Thankfully this doesn’t happen often. I’m a big proponent of delivering excellent customer service to the clients I work with. People like feeling that they and the issues that they are dealing with matter to you. When you show that appreciate them and the business they provide, it creates a foundation where loyalty and trust bloom. And let’s face it – it doesn’t cost you a dime to treat people nicely and with respect. My friend, Lori Widmer wrote a fantastic article about how businesses should get back to the basics of offering good old-fashioned customer service as a deliverable to clients. I highly suggest checking it out.

No matter how nice you are, you get a client who cannot be pleased. Some people just like living in the shadow of misery and complaining about everything under the sun. I’m usually pretty good about sniffing these individuals out and avoiding them in both my personal and professional lives; but I’m human and sometimes my “spidey senses” fail to warn me of impending trouble.

Client #1: Nothing is right; but how can it be when he keeps trying to change the scope at every turn? He disappears for weeks and then pops back up at the most inopportune times (e.g. when I’m getting started with new projects) to suggest new changes. To top it off, he has an inflated sense of importance and can be quite sarcastic and demeaning when communicating with everyone working on the project. Now normally I have clauses in my contracts that would have helped me avoid a lot of this type of situation. I took this project on through a marketing firm I used to work with, so I’m kind of stuck dealing with their terms of service.

Client #2: A PR/Marketing and Promotional professional who is completely clueless about what she wants. She’s in need of a professional bio and during our initial phone conversation explained the breadth of her industry experience, saying she wants the bio to reflect that. I prepare the bio based on our conversation and additional information she provided.

Now she says it’s too broad, and she wants it to be more narrowly focused. We scheduled another call to discuss it further, but I realize that she really doesn’t want to participate in the process saying , “I thought I’d just give it to you so that you could complete it without my involvement. I’m just so busy.” Yeah, I gathered that you’re so busy when you missed our last scheduled phone call to instead take part in an impromptu tennis match (BTW - I would NEVER have admitted to anyone that I did that).

All frustration aside, I treat these clients with respect and consideration. Under different circumstances, I would have recognized that they were not the right clients for me BEFORE doing business with them. Nevertheless, here are some of my tips for dealing with difficult clients:

Don’t Let Them Get to You

Easier said than done sometimes, but if my past corporate sales experience taught me anything, it’s that remaining calm and in control when dealing with irate or otherwise difficult customers is important. You have to separate yourself emotionally from the situation and not take things personally. If they get nasty, don’t take the bait.

Don’t Keep Apologizing

This advice kind of seems like the opposite of good customer service on the surface. I NEVER say “I’m sorry by the way. I don’t like that phrase, and think it’s overdone. What I will say is: “I apologize for…” and offer solutions. I make sure that I am clear about specifically what I’m apologizing for. Also, I don’t keep apologizing because when it’s mindlessly uttered over and over it loses its value and just doesn’t seem sincere.

Establish a Rapport if Possible

I’ll objectively listen to a client’s complaints, and offer sincere empathy saying something like, “I can understand your issue with XYZ; I don’t like to be kept waiting either.” Sometimes it helps them calm down and see that I do understand their frustration and am truly trying to help correct the issue or get to the root of it. **NOTE: I don’t recommend doing this if you don’t sincerely feel empathetic because It can come across as completely insincere.

How important is customer service in your business, and you have any additional tips to share?


Lori said...

Thanks for the link love, toots. :)

Spidey sense - love it. :) It's odd how often it works, and how accurate that feeling can be.

Great point about NOT apologizing. I rarely use "I'm sorry" anymore either, not because I'm not sorry, but because it sounds trite and it also shifts it from a collaborative relationship to a power imbalance. I've had situations where I've uttered that phrase in the past and the client seems to lose faith and start acting dictatorial.

Worse is when writers use it to present reasons why they charge so much. "I'm sorry, but that's the going rate with my other clients." How about just "That's the going rate" without the apology?

Anne Wayman said...

Customer service is paramount but the customer in my world is not always right.

I've dumped clients who turn out to be too clueless.

I'll sometimes say "I'm sorry you feel that way." Sounds like an apology unless they are listening really closely - it can stop the rant and maybe we can go on.

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