Monday Mornings with Madison

Handling Difficult People – Part 1

Part 1:  The Challenging Client

According to Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”  If employees are the lifeblood of a company, then customers are its food and water…. the basic nutrition without which a company cannot exist.  But digesting those nutrients is not always easy.  Companies often struggle with how to handle ‘difficult’ clients.  What is the right protocol for handling the most hard-to-please clientele?  After all, the adage says that the customer is always right.  If so, then how should a company handle those most challenging clients?  Should a company kowtow to an ill-tempered client, even if it is at the expense of the morale and respect of the staff?  Should a firm go the extra mile to please a fractious client even when that extra care means the transaction is no longer profitable to the company?   Does it make sense for a business to indulge the over-the-top demands of an exasperating client if it is going to overwhelm the business and cause it to neglect the needs of the rest of the clients?

Is there an invisible line that, when crossed, means the client is no longer right?  If so, where is that line?  How will the rank and file employees of a business know where that line is?  When it comes to handling challenging clients, companies do best when they communicate clear rules of engagement that protect the dignity and respect of both clients and employees, provide extensive training on how to handle difficult situations, and encourage staff to have genuine compassion for the needs of others.  Even so, when all else fails, there may be times when a business should  put the needs of the company and staff ahead of the tough client and just say no or say goodbye.

Servicing Clients Varies from Business to Business

The goal of every business should be to keep customers happy, but that’s not always easy, and customers can and often do get upset.  Handling challenging customers varies from business to business. For example, in the world of retail sales, meeting the needs of a difficult customer during a peak season or key promotion can be challenging.  In those situations, it is a balancing act between keeping one individual customer happy without it being at the expense of the rest of the customers.  Patience, customer service training and compassion, coupled with good staffing and management support are all key to diffusing a tense moment or addressing a tough customer’s demands.

On the other hand, in the world of technical or high-end services, such as law, accounting, lending and real estate, there are fewer transactions and each client can represent a lot of business for a firm.  In such a scenario, a difficult client is more likely to be handled with kid gloves, providing personalized attention and consideration to address specific demands.

Either way, when it comes to handling the toughest clients, every business must decide how it wants to handle out-of-the-ordinary issues and thorny clients handled.  The reality is that difficult customers exist in every business.  So, how does a company deal with difficult clients while staying sane?  Here are some key tips.

1. Listen and communicate with care.

Listen carefully to what a client is asking and mirror the terms that a customer uses.  Avoid words or phrases that are confrontational, careless or sloppy, such as “knock it together”, “hash out the details later” or “get around to it in due time.”  Communicate in terms that reflect back what the client is saying.   Mirroring a customer’s words puts them at ease and assures them their needs have been understood.

2.  Use clear, specific, measurable language to address issues

There are times when difficult clients, even those with legitimate concerns, just want to vent at great length and repeatedly. During such situations, a client may make broad generalizations, like “nothing is working” or “never hit a deadline.”  The best way to  tackle this is to ask for specific examples of things that aren’t working or deadlines missed.  Then propose specific, measurable solutions.  It is important to then ask, “If we solve your problem, does that fix the situation?” “If we are able to close on the property by end of the month, are we good?” Specifics are key when dealing with difficult clients.

3. Acknowledge without agreeing

Often agreeing with an irate client only adds fuel to the fire. Instead, acknowledge their position, letting them know they’ve been heard, and then shift the conversation to the resolution.  Move away from the ranting and toward a solution.

4. Focus on the goal

Keep an eye on what the client wants achieved; not their complaints and anger. Instead of handling petty details, work toward the end goal. If the goal is to cure the disease, don’t waste time treating symptoms that will go away.  Treat the illness instead.  If the issue for the client is to ensure that the property closes on time, it is more important for the Realtor to work closely with the lender and title agent rather than worrying about what to do if the contract expires before closing.

5. Document discussions

On a whiteboard, jot down a client’s complaints.  If the client starts to rehash an already-discussed issue, the whiteboard serves as a reminder that the issue has been discussed and addressed.  At the end of a discussion, the client’s notes can be added to a computer file to ensure that anyone else who works with the client will be aware of past issues.

6. Recognize a personality conflict

There are times when a particular employee cannot work with a particular client.  The best bet is to find another member of the team to assign to the client.  If possible, involve the client in identifying with who they’d prefer to work, so they understand that this is an exercise in service, not a slight.

7. Ignore or brush off minor remarks

People can sometimes be rude and not even realize it.  Disparaging or rude comments should just be ignored, if possible.  One nifty trick to make that easier is to add “From my limited experience” mentally to the end of a client’s deprecating statement. For example, if an attorney’s client that says that “attorneys are bottom feeders” or an accountant’s client says “accountants are pencil-pushing bean counters,” rather than feel insulted, mentally tack on “From my limited experience” to the end of the client’s statement.  It softens the blow.  A client may not think well of attorneys or accountants because of a limited understanding of the complexity of that profession’s work or a general attitude toward the profession.  The client may think they are just being funny, and not realize just how offensive the comment is.  By adding this mental tag line, it changes the perception of that client and makes it easier to tolerate minor disparaging remarks.

Sometimes none of these approaches works.  Once a business has done everything it can, within reason, to listen, address and satisfy the needs of a tough client, it may be time to consider other options.

1.  Put staff first

If a client is being verbally abusive to staff, it is important to put the employee’s needs and wellbeing first. It is never okay for a client to be abusive, and employees need to know that the management “has their back.”  The way employees are valued and treated by management is ultimately going to be one of the biggest drivers of how they treat customers.  When a client becomes abusive, that is the time to take action.  See options 2 and 3 below.  The company may lose the client, but the alternative could be losing invaluable members of the team.  Consider that the cost to replace key employees may exceed whatever profits come from keeping an abusive client… and that a difficult client may ultimately leave anyway.

2.  Just say ‘No’

While businesses should do whatever it can — within reason — to keep a customer happy, there are limits.  The key is to determine what is within reason.  The leadership or department manager should define what is or isn’t reasonable.  If it is a small business and one client is taking up an exorbitant amount of the business’ time and resources, there may be a need to just say “No.”  In such a situation, the customer should be told (in the most polite way possible) that that particular request cannot be met and explain why. Sometimes it is better to be honest with the client and do what makes the most sense for the business than to try to please the client at all costs.

3.  Fire a customer

A company is in business to make money.  It is not a charity.  No company can realistically afford to give away services or bend to every client’s whim, especially if it is not going to generate a return for the business.  The client should generate a return, not just for one project or one month, but over the long haul to make it worthwhile.

If a client is costing a company money by making unreasonable demands related to price, turnaround time, additional services, or by being mean to staff or impossible to please, sometimes it’s best to cut ties. Of course, this is not a tack that any business can afford to do regularly or casually.  There is a risk to the company’s reputation when a difficult client is let go.  In some cases, others will know of the difficulties of working with this client and will understand the decision.   But the reasoning for the decision must be sound.

Problems will arise and clients will complain. This is the nature of business. How a company ultimately handles those situations is the value it brings to the organization. Companies should learn from difficult customers and see them as a way to help strengthen the overall business.  It’s the disgruntled customers that will push a business to be its best and do its best.  And, in a way, those difficult customers may be a blessing in disguise.

Quote of the Week

“Statistics suggest that when customers complain, business owners and managers ought to get excited about it. The complaining customer represents a huge opportunity for more business.” Zig Ziglar


© 2015, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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