Lessons Learned
Dealing with Difficult Customers

Part 1 in a series of notes from the trenches of running a small business.

kid with attitude
Photo by a4gpa

“Every rose has its thorn,” declare the universally-relevant Poison lyrics. In cultivating a small business, much like cultivating a garden, the moments of beauty are truly breathtaking. But the thorns do come. And when they do, they can hurt. Among them lies the upset customer.

Ask any small business owner about their most challenging customer interaction and you’ll almost certainly get an earful. Stories of unrealistic expectations, caustic conversations, and outrageous demands abound.

But behind the horror stories lives another, more valuable set of memories: the lessons learned in the process. In our decades of event planning, we’ve had our unfortunate customer moments, too. Lessons that apply to business of any size and any type.

Preventing Customer Conflict

The battle against unruly customers begins long before the tensions rise, the phone ominously rings, or the negative review appears online. Much frustration can be avoided in the first interactions with a potential customer.

Be realistic about budgets

A sizable percentage of customer disappointment can be attributed to over-promising in the bidding or budgeting process. A dream client walks in the door, and you want to do everything in your power to seal the deal. But weeks or months down the line, when all the bells and whistles you enthusiastically agreed to turn out to be budget-breakers, that dream client might just turn into a nightmare. The bottom line? Be realistic about budgets. Don’t “give away the farm” in exchange for a closed deal. As Event Manager Elle Harala explains, discussing budgets plays a big role in establishing accurate expectations of our services: “While we work hard to save our clients money, sometimes expectations or special requests don’t fit their budget. In those situations, sometimes we let clients down. And that’s tough. This is why an initial meeting to go over expectations, goals, objectives and the budget are a must.”

Remember, time isn’t relative

In addition to price, the other common area of over-promising is time. “Can you have my cake ready in an hour?” “Can you throw a legendary party this Friday?” Sometimes, timelines are just too short for what a client has in mind. “Planning takes time,” explains Elle. “When we’re put under pressure to produce large events in under a week or even a month, the planning process can get a bit difficult.” Often, by agreeing to a short timeline for one customer, you’ll be sacrificing focus from another. “We want each client to feel like our number one priority. It can be a challenge to juggle the event that’s taking place within the week at the same time as another event six months away.” Think twice before nodding along to a customer’s request for a rushed job. It’s far better to disappoint in a meeting and deliver on time than vice-versa.

Offer alternatives

Sometimes the issue isn’t price, or time, but fit. When your dog grooming businesses is visited by a bird aficionado, it might not be the best time to “give the customer what they want.” If you’re understaffed, ill-prepared, or ill-equipped for the customer’s request, suggest an alternative. Perhaps you know of a competitor who specializes in what they’re looking for, or maybe you could even do a quick Google search to help them find what they’re looking for. Even though you gave up a transaction, that effort may have just landed you a customer for life.

Rising to the Challenge

No matter how hard you work to avoid disappointing a customer, invariably, the unthinkable will happen. When it does, having a clear action plan will drastically improve your chances of turning the moment into a net positive for your company and the customer.

Stay calm

When tensions are high, voices and volume are likely to rise with them. In Dale Carnegie’s bestselling book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, he asserts that it’s impossible to win an argument. His advice is to deny the argument’s fire oxygen by breaking the argumentative tone. Simply put, remain calm. Escalation is the buzzword to avoid here. By using a composed and peaceful tone, you’re more likely to coax your customer back down from their state of pent-up frustration.

Talk in private

Having a tense conversation in the open does two things: it gives the complainer an audience, and brings hesitation to any other customers within earshot. When it becomes apparent that a conversation is entering “dissatisfied” territory, find a private place to talk. If done gracefully, the action will make your customer feel that you’re going out of your way to understand their concerns without shushing them or hustling them out the door.

Repeat concerns

A woman was recently seen in line at a fast food restaurant, complaining that her oatmeal was served with sugar mixed in, despite her sugar-free order. “I have diabetes,” she exclaimed. The cashier was unamused, silently motioning for the manager. The manager, equally stoic, typed in her passcode to open the cash drawer for the customer’s refund. The conversation continued to escalate, until the customer left with her refund in hand, even more agitated than when the episode began.

Can you see the problem here? The people who had served the sugary oatmeal failed to acknowledge that their mistake mattered. Given to a diabetic, the oatmeal could have caused health problems. Even though the customer was refunded the money she had paid, the silence she received was heard as a disregard for her health. Just imagine if the cashier and manager had voiced more concern than the customer about their mistake. The oatmeal fan would have likely talked them down, assuring them that it would be okay.

Being heard is a powerful feeling. Having your concerns ignored is equally powerful. The clearest way to prove that you’ve heard a customer’s concerns is to repeat them back. “I can see why you are so concerned,” a good manager would have said. “You could have had a serious reaction to that sugar. I’ll refund your money and assure you that we won’t make the mistake again.” Occasionally, simply acknowledging the inconvenience or mistake will solve the problem right then and there.

Address the issues

At the end of the day, a customer is voicing a concern for a reason. Your ultimate goal is to right what was wrong, both practically and apologetically. Our VP of Sales, Lance Salisbury says, “I’ve always said to my staff that when dealing with events, it’s never the problem that arises, but how you solve those problems.”

Your practical amends can take a variety of shapes. A popular grocery chain offers a generous solution for any customer dissatisfied with their generic label of food products. They’ll not only refund the purchase price, but also give the customer a second unit of product to taste again. An online startup offers hundred-day trials of their mail order mattresses. If a customer decides against keeping the mattress, the company arranges for a local charity to pick it up and keep it as a donation. Yes, creativity can apply to customer service.

Sometimes, your only saving grace is offering a refund. Other times, solving the problem is the only thing that matters. Before you rush to open your cash drawer, listen. Ask for their input regarding a potential solution.

Finish well

Finally, remember that the last taste in a person’s mouth is the one they’ll remember the longest. Event Manager Eddy Willingham explains, “Ultimately, it’s not about how you start. It’s all about how you finish. Do what you can to finish well.” Thank your customer for their business, apologize again for their inconvenience, and invite them to work with you again. If the situation was especially regrettable, consider following up with a phone call or even a handwritten note.

A customer who witnesses your masterful recovery could wind up being your greatest advocate in the end.

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