Business killers: How to deal with your worst customers

anagentile's picture
BFF Manager

Take a minute and think about your worst client. Admit it: you have at least one client or customer who drives you nuts. They’re the ones who consume your time with unnecessary questions and issues. They constantly try to negotiate to price or they don’t pay their bill in a timely manner. In extreme cases, they’re just plain rude and talk down to you and your employees.

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Every business has a handful of customers who seem to cause more trouble than they’re worth. If you’re like many business owners, you simply try to tolerate these clients as best you can out of fear that you may ultimately lose their business.

However, tolerating problem clients isn’t good for you or your business. Problem clients can wear on you and your employees, causing stress and burnout. They can also cost you money. Your team may be spending time on these problem clients that could be better spent on other clients or projects.

how to deal with worst customers

If you have a problem customer, you have to take action to get them under control. You don’t need to fire them and you needn’t lose their business, but you also can’t let them walk all over you. Here are five tips you can implement to reign in your bad apples:

Do a time audit.

You probably know who your worst customers are. But do you have the data to back it up? Sometimes clients can be so stressful that it feels like they consume more time than they actually do. If you’re getting secondhand reports about a client from your employees, it’s helpful to ask whether the customer is really consuming time or whether the employee just isn’t managing the stress well.

Do a time audit to verify which of your clients are problems and just how big of a problem they may be. If you’re a solo entrepreneur, this should be simple. Just spend a couple of weeks documenting your work. Write down which customer you’re doing work for and what tasks you’re doing. At the end of the two weeks, you should have a pretty clear picture of how your time is being allocated among clients.

If you have a team of employees, it may be difficult to ask them to track all of their time. Rather, just ask them to document the time they spend on the suspected problem clients. Then you can make an informed decision about whether you should take any action with the clients.

Set clear standards.

Are you familiar with the phrase, “Give an inch and he’ll take a foot”? Some people will continue to ask for favors, service, and support until someone finally tells them no. They don’t have the ability to recognize that they’re being a burden. Or they may know that they’re being a burden and just don’t care.

Either way, you have to draw a line in the sand and let them know what is and is not acceptable for your business. If they constantly pay late, let them know that you will terminate the relationship unless they make timely payments. If they talk down to your employees, tell them that kind of language just isn’t acceptable.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your customers know how to be respectful. You may have to clearly tell them.

Document everything.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to document all interactions you have with your problem client. Ask your employees to do the same. It may seem tedious, but it may help you save the relationship and move forward with the client in a more productive manner.

For example, assume you have a customer who constantly calls your customer service team with the same, repetitive issues and questions. He’s consuming the time of multiple representatives on a regular basis.

If your representatives document the content of those calls, you can then use that documentation to follow up with the client. You could say something like “I see that you called our service center three times last week about the same issue. What happened on the first two calls that didn’t get your issue resolved?”

One of two things will happen. You may learn that there truly was a service issue and that the client really didn’t get the help he needed. Or the client will realize that he’s being a burden, without you having to tell him directly. Either way, having the documentation will help you reach a solution to the problem.

Be honest with yourself.

The customer isn’t always right, no matter what you may have heard. The client is usually right, though. Most customer complaints or issues do have a legitimate basis, even if the client is presenting the issue in an obnoxious or unpleasant manner.

If you have a client who is causing you and your team a great deal of stress, take the time to consider whether the customer is actually right. Is your service bad? Did you make promises that weren’t upheld? Did your product get shipped behind schedule?

Again, your customer may be verbally abusive and may shout and scream. Take the time, though, to objectively look at the merits of their argument. If you are at fault in some way, acknowledge that. Simply admitting fault will likely defuse the situation. Then you and the customer can talk about how to fix the issue.

Ask them for advice.

This is a sneaky way to tell the customer that there’s a problem, without assigning blame. In this case, you just ask them how you can help them with whatever their particular issue may be. If you have a client who always wants to negotiate rates, you may ask, “Our rates seem to be an issue for you. How can I help you find a solution that fits in your budget?”

You may find that they really can’t afford your services, in which case they may not be a good fit for your company. You may have a lower-priced product or service that would be more appropriate for them.

If you have a customer who doesn’t pay on time, ask how you can help. Maybe you can work out an arrangement to get them back on schedule.

When you ask for their advice, you’re helping to identify a solution without also insulting them. That may help you preserve the relationship and get a better client out of it.

In all of these tips, communication is key. Communication can solve most problems. By being direct and communicating your concerns to your customer, you can work with them to find a solution.

If that doesn’t work, you may have no choice but to fire the customer. While that may be uncomfortable and it may cost your business, it will save you much stress and aggravation. You’ll be able to focus on the things that really matter - like finding good clients to grow your business.

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