Caring for Difficult Customers PDF Print E-mail

By Paul Dorrian.

t often seems that customer care has been positioned in the minds of many sales and marketing people as a guarantee of business success, and sometimes a panacea for customer related problems. Look after the customer, bend over backwards for him and customer loyalty will result, we are told. Doing business would be a lot easier if it was that simple. The truth of the matter is that customer care becomes easier to apply ( and as a result is probably more effective) with the customer that we really like, and with whom we enjoy doing business. You know the customer I mean? The one where the chemistry between our two selves is just right, and where mutual respect and understanding exists. The customer with whom we enjoy going to the rugby, socialising and visiting on a regular basis. The net result ? A loyal customer who thinks our customer care is terrific and who regularly gives us a high score on the quarterly service rating. But what about the customer whom we label overdemanding, unreasonable or loathsome? Worse still what about the obnoxious customer who lays down the law and lets us know in no uncertain terms that he is the customer and we the supplier, and that if we really want to keep his account..........well I am sure you can fill in the rest for yourself. Where does customer care fit into this scenario? Do you really feel motivated to provide this customer with the same level of care and attention as you do the likeable customer? Can one honestly expect customer care principles and techniques to make a difference with this kind of person? To be quite honest, probably not. I doubt if they were ever intended to.

Business is about relationships, and these can be tricky at the best of times. Even the most fruitful relationships in the world, whether they be family, social or business are often tested to the limit. Charles Handy, the Anglo - Irish management guru tells us that trust and forgiveness are not much in evidence today because too often neither party cares whether the relationship continues or not, neither supplier nor customer, neither organisation nor contractor sometimes neither husband nor wife.[1] Moreover he advises us that no relationship can survive and grow unless we are prepared to trust, and to forgive when the trust goes wrong, again and again and again. No forgiveness means no relationship. [2]. Herein lies the key to dealing with the overdemanding, difficult to please, even unscrupulous customer. Put simply, if you want to retain the relationship you are going to have to overlook, manage and perhaps even forgive that particular customer's socially abnormal behaviour. Not once, or twice, but more than likely over the period of the relationship.

Moreover, customer care is situation related in that depending on who you are and the situation in which you find yourself, will have an influence on how you act and react towards your customers' behaviour. I often think about that age old native American proverb which advises us never to judge a man until we have walked a hundred miles in his shoes. Its a strong possibility that we label customers as ' overdemanding', 'difficult to please' or 'impossible' because we have not taken the time to really understand that customer's position. We're often too busy focusing on the sale to see the real situation that the customer is facing. The result is that when things don't go our own way, or the customer care principles and techniques that we have been taught do not work, the negative label that we apply to that customer is sufficient justification for our own lack of committed effort. Perhaps it is time that we try to wear the shoes of those "overdemanding" customers a little bit longer. Why is it that they behave the way they do? Is it because they themselves are under immense pressure at work, have extraordinarily high stress levels, or have been let down badly in the past by suppliers? If you want to have the remotest possibility of developing a relationship with any human being, then you have to learn to look at life through that person's eyes, and to appreciate their situation before making any decision regarding them. As Lao Tzu observes "To act effectively, be aware and unbiased. If you are aware you will know what is happening; you will not act rashly. If you are unbiased, you can react in a balanced and centred manner."[3] So true for developing customer relationships.

Many white South African businesspeople are grappling to come to terms with the tough competition that industry in this country is now having to face, not to mention issues like a falling Rand, affirmative action and more demanding customers. We are currently experiencing a period in the country's development that is having dire consequences for the performance of many of our companies, which in turn is manifesting itself in the behaviour of people not only at home but also in the workplace. Quite simply, people are under pressure the likes of which they have never had to cope with before. That may not solve your concerns about the "unreasonable" or "overdemanding"customer, but it should help you to understand that your selling approach has to enter a new dimension - that of relationship building through discreetly assisting your customer to succeed and to achieve his own aims and objectives. If you want to retain him as a customer then that is the form of "forgiveness" and understanding that you are going to have to administer.

If you are not prepared to do so on a continuous basis then don't complain if the customer goes elsewhere or gives you a rough time if he is unable to.

W hat makes selling such an interesting and indeed challenging profession is that the salesperson's personality has to be able to cope with and manage all the different personalities that his or her customers display. Stop thinking that the application of customer care principles and techniques will make you smell of roses with every customer. Lets get customer care into perspective.Despite what I have stated above, you cannot hope to satisfy all of the customers all of the time, but you can improve your batting average to such an extent that you and your organisation's reputation will grow in the marketplace. Remember, customers do business with a company at three levels of confidence. The first of these is in you the salesperson. The customer needs to be confident that you are genuinely interested in him/her and his/her business needs. Then the customer can move up to the second level of confidence, namely, confidence in your company and the products that it markets. Lastly, the customer needs to have confidence in himself/herself as a decision maker, that he/she is making the right decision by purchasing from your organisation. These three levels of confidence need to be present every time the customer interacts with you and your company particularly at the sales level. No matter who the customer happens to be, your company's job is to ensure that the customer's confidence at each of these levels is strongly enhanced at every interaction with your organisation. Practitioners of customer care know that by achieving this their company stands a better chance of being seen to be different from and better than its opposition where it matters most - in the minds of its customers. This is true differentiation. So next time you are tempted to label a customer as 'overdemanding', 'difficult' or 'unreasonable', ask yourself if it is worthwhile to build and maintain a relationship with that person. If the answer is yes, then set about making that relationship happen in a mutually beneficial manner. Don't moan. Look upon the situation as an opportunity to be of assistance to someone. If the answer is no, then you are probably better off channelling your energies into developing other meaningful relationships. Either way, you get what you deserve.


[1] See Charles Handy, Waiting For The Mountain To Move, ( London : Arrow Books, 1992, p34)

[2] ibid, p34

[3] See John Heider, The Tao of Leadership, ( Bantam Books, 1988, p 125).

Reprinted from Dorrian, Paul. Caring For Difficult Customers. Successful Salesmanship , February 1997