Celebrating the people behind British small businesses

Is the customer always king? How to deal with difficult customers

When you’re running any kind of business, whether it’s a small start-up or a huge corporation, your customers always remain key to your success. It’s important to treat everyone with fairness and respect, and it’s your responsibility to provide them with a high-quality service. However, it’s also important to be aware that bad customers exist, and to take the necessary steps to minimise their impact on your business – knowing how to deal with difficult customers is invaluable, whatever your industry.

What is a bad customer, and what harm can they have on my business?

If you’ve ever worked in any sort of business, you’ll have likely encountered a challenging customer. Whether their behaviour towards you has been abusive and threatening, or simply unreasonable, bad customers all have something in common. They bring you, and your company, down – unlike good customers, who help your company go from strength to strength.

Not only do these customers often prove to be a waste of your valuable time and resources, but they take these away from your good customers – the ones you specifically need to target and retain. And there are further consequences; dealing with difficult customers can demoralise your staff through hefty demands and a negative attitude. They are also more likely to complain and give bad reviews of your company.

The simple truth is that some customers don’t see the value of what you have to offer, and this just isn’t conducive to a long and beautiful vendor-customer relationship. But how can you weed out the good from the bad?

Spotting bad customers

Not seeing the value of your services means that money can often be the root of acquiring a bad customer; often they will be directed to your business through a promotion, be it a free trial or discount period. This by no means suggests that anyone who comes to your business because of this is a bad customer, but it’s often a good time to keep your eyes and ears open and evaluate why they’ve chosen your service.

Once they have become a customer, the level of contact you have with them (or they have with you) can also be a useful indicator of their worth. Are they often hard to get hold of, seemingly dodging your calls? Bar holidays and illness, this could be a sign that they’re flaky and unwilling to commit. Or perhaps they are never off the phone, taking up too much of your staff’s valuable time, constantly out to see how much they can get from you – and not in an “eye for a bargain” way.

Another bad customer red flag is constant dissatisfaction with your service or product. No matter what you do it just isn’t good enough and, if you are secure in the knowledge that your provisions are up to scratch, you should begin to realise that it never will be. These customers want the moon on a stick (but without the overheads), putting your other considerations at a loss.

The right customers

These are the ones to focus on. Not only are they loyal, the type you can rely on to stay with you through thick and thin, but they genuinely want your service and are willing to pay for it. No quick buck for these guys – they’re playing the long game. They realise your worth and know that, in the long run, they will reap the rewards.

And they genuinely have an emotional investment in your business. Think of your own favourite coffee shop or clothing brand – you’ll rave about them to people without being prompted. You can rely on good word-of-mouth recommendations and trust that, when it comes to doing business, they know you know your stuff. They won’t distract you from your business aims or exploit you for their own gain.

These are the type of customers who will make and keep your company successful, boost staff morale and prove how good you are at what you do.

Dealing with bad customers

In an ideal world, there would be no bad customers. In a slightly-less-ideal–but-still-pretty-great one you could recognise difficult customers before they even became customers. And it is possible. Successful customer profiling and targeting strategies are one way to go about it. Direct your advertising at the customers you know are serious prospects, and look after your existing customers so that they recommend you. You could even offer incentive schemes that encourage these referrals, which are not only great for your company image but are more likely to draw in solid leads.

It’s also reasonable to preclude any formal client relationship with a little bit of research; this is especially relevant if you work in a more sensitive industry, such as finance. You can ask all prospects to fill out a questionnaire to get a better idea of what it is they need, and what they expect from you. Credit checks are a great way to weed out the uncreditworthy and ensure you aren’t going to be left unpaid, and trade references can give you a better idea of what it’s like to work with this person.

If a bad customer does happen to slip through your net, however, there are things you can do. Rather than waste time trying to turn consistently dissatisfied customers into happy customers (it’s just not going to happen), you could give them a slight, subtle shove towards other companies. One way to do this is to offer ‘get out easy’ options such as a limited refund period for the unsatisfied. Another is to make it easy to get out of their contract within a certain timescale. Both are fairly simple solutions that could save you a lot of hassle in the long run, and which actually work in the customer’s favour too. At the root of any negative customer interaction is the fact that they’re just not a great fit for your company, and perhaps choosing another company would provide them with a more positive buying experience too. Win-win!

Foul is fair

Remember though, this particular customer may be more a court jester than a king, but it is still important to remain polite and professional at all times. Rudeness is unacceptable, even if a customer is effing and blinding all over the shop. You don’t want to sacrifice your good reputation for customer service on such an ill-fated relationship – so remember to always be polite and fair, even when showing them the door.