CXO

Seek out difficult customers to gain valuable insight

One of the best things about difficult customers is that they care enough to complain. If you're discounting these customers' opinions, you may miss opportunities to gain valuable insights about your service or product.

One of the best things about difficult customers is that they care enough to complain. If you're discounting these customers' opinions, you may miss opportunities to gain valuable insights about your service or product.

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During a management meeting, we had a long conversation about labeling people, specifically customers. This practice in all its forms can have unwanted and unintended results. By labeling customers, you make broad assumptions about them. As many of us have learned through years of requirements gathering for software development or ERP implementations, assumptions can be dangerous.

Everyone has difficult customers, or rather customers that demand more from you. They want things a specific way at a specific time at a specific price. If they don't get it, they will complain to everyone who will listen. Many times, employees are busy handling day-to-day issues and dealing with problems that may affect many customers and somehow justify ignoring or indefinitely putting off the needs of the solitary difficult customer. When customer service survey time comes around, employees are not surprised by one or two negative responses. They say, "I know who submitted those surveys. They are just difficult customers. If we don't count those surveys, we have a great score!"

The difficult customers have automatically been discounted. When difficult customers complain, you see the eyes rolling all around the room. We come up with all kinds of reasons; we say that they don't understand computers, or despite the training they received, they still don't get the application. But discounting and dismissing customers like this can lead to a lot of missed opportunities.

Instead of avoiding difficult customers, I suggest that you seek them out. We all have our own idea of what "good enough" actually means. For some people, their definition of "good enough" is of a higher quality or greater attention to detail than us or our employees. What is more important is that these difficult customers actually care about your company, your products, and services enough to complain. When you look at a customer's options, they can always choose to leave and go to a competitor or do without your service. They have choices, but they care enough to complain. So these two elements — their definition of "good enough" and their desire to complain about it — are perfect opportunities to gain insight on how to improve your product or service.

You should engage difficult customers about their issues. You'll often find that sincerely listening is enough to calm people down. Once you accomplish, try to understand the customer's perspective. Many times, it may be difficult or expensive to accomplish. If that is the case, it is usually a good idea to include the customer in the challenge and come up with a way to address it together.

I've had several interactions with difficult customers in which they had brilliant ideas about accomplishing things more easily than I could have imagined. One of the reasons why they were so upset in the first place was that they clearly saw how simple it would be to provide this service or product and just could not understand why we couldn't provide it for them.

It's kind of like that well-known story: A truck gets stuck under a bridge that was too low for the height of the truck. Try as they might, wrecker crews and bridge engineers could not get the truck un-stuck. A young child, who was stuck in traffic with her parents waiting for the wreck to clear said, "Daddy, why don't they just let the air out of the tires?"

Those small flashes of brilliance come in all shapes and sizes, and they always come from people who see things differently than we do. Lucky for us, as soon as they complain, we know who these people are.

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