5 ways to handle difficult customers

Treat your neighbours as you would yourself. This mantra rings true for many situations except when it comes to dealing with difficult clients. Non-paying, overly demanding or untruthful clients can have a negative impact on any customer-facing business, but it usually goes against professional work ethic to reprimand customers or treat them aggressively.

The customer is king, and as a result small businesses have to treat their customers with respect while standing their ground. Here are five tips on how to do just that.

Leave emotions out of it

Just because an angry customer is screaming profanities at you doesn't mean that you should retaliate likewise. Instead, keep your cool and avoid getting emotional - or personal - about your business dealings. Global career coaching company MindTools recommends that you put aside any feelings you might have that the situation isn't your fault, or that your customer is mistaken or criticising you unfairly. It's not about whose fault it is, it's about finding a solution to the customer's problem. There's no point crying over spilt milk, so ensure you change your mindset and work actively with your customer to move forward.

Acknowledge the problem

Many businesses make the mistake of reacting defensively to difficult clients and refuse to acknowledge the problem, instead choosing to skate around in vague circles. However, actually admitting that the problem is there and that you understand how your customer is feeling is the first step to resolution. Providing top-notch customer service, despite whose fault it is, provides less incentive for your client to continue his/her tirade.

Treat customers as you would a prospect

According to Tim Richards, SMO Manager at Grow Some, you should treat your customer like a prospective sales client - this involves maintaining politeness, listening to their grievances, recommending solutions and being all-round positive about the situation.

"It is your job to match your product to the client's needs, not squeeze their needs into your inflexible box - don't go there. Remember, good sales people don't need to lie, so be confident and tell them if the product can't or won't do what they want," Mr Richards tells SavvySME.

Don't blame someone else

Once you've identified and recognised the problem, don't shift the blame to the customer, suppliers or staff in an effort to cover up. Blaming the customer is the number one no-no, states American sales coach Dave Kahle, e.g. saying something like "Are you sure you understood the price and delivery date correctly?" This will simply anger your customer all over again as it seems you're questioning his/her credibility.

Mr Kahle also believes you should also never say, "I'm not surprised your invoice was wrong. It's been happening a lot," or "Yes, our backorders are way behind."

Instead, try saying, "Clearly there's a problem here with our performance. I can't change that, but let me see what I can do to help you out because I understand how important your project is."

Resolve the problem

This step is often the most crucial as it means you actually have to take action to solve your customer's problem instead of just talking about it. Empty promises are a sure signal that your customer will escalate the problem further and never buy from you again.

Dr Alan Zimmerman from the US Association of IT professionals states that the faster you address and resolve the problem, the greater the appreciation and loyalty you receive from customers. If it's an inefficient process, streamline it. If it's an unreliable supplier, find an alternative. If it's a mistake your employee made, ensure you talk to him/her personally and ensure they understand the impact it has on your business. The key is to make sure the incident isn't repeated, as customers will not abide a business making the same mistake over and over again.

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