Leadership

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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17 comments
Gabby22
Gabby22

Unless you genuinely believe you can learn from such clients, get out fast - it won't do you any good to stay. A good client of mine, in the hardware service business, was running out of space in their premises. They decided that firstly they'd start dumping their 'difficult' clients, and see what happened. They did it, profits improved and business was never better, so they had to move anyway. The main problem with their difficult customers, like mine, was the client's personnel, particularly aggro, slick, wanna-be-clever managers who believed that shafting their suppliers was good business practice. Which meant that the margin on work for these clients was consistently low, and the working relationship was poor anyway. Of course, the extra hidden benefit is that they then go to your competitors, so you win twice. You could say that the problem might have been my client, but it doesn't matter - if you don't have a good fit with your client, get out ASAP.

ajay.ranoat
ajay.ranoat

Instead to avoid difficult client, its better to avoid difficult situation by offering a mechanism where they can view each and every step of your service delivery and have control on services delivery. Once they will be part of each and every step, only then they will be at better position to understand the limitations and even come up with suggestions. Offering this kind of mechanism helps to open up two way interactions that are beneficial for client as well as service provider. Thanks, Ajay www.vcustomer.com www.vcustomerindia.com

misceng
misceng

Being retired I am the customer of IT and other matters. What really gets me going are the companies who receive a carefully stated complaint and reply with a formulaic response which is only marginally related to the complaint and do not answer any of the specific points raised. I then avoid these companies as much as possible. I wonder how much larger their customer base would be if they gave considered responses.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

The key here is to never let criticism get to you. To use a quote "Take what you can, give nothing back!". The second key is (quickly) distinguish between the different types of (loud) complainers: the squeaky wheel: those people who believe they have to yell in order to be heard. the my-way-or-the-highway: those people who believe they have the only answer. the extremist: those people who always feedback at one end or the other. the heavy-hitter: they're just telling it like it is with no sugar coating. the poker-player: those who have a hidden agenda for complaints. In effect, you need to identify why a complainer is complaining. And then decide how to handle it. Maybe you can improve your relationship with them. Maybe you don't want to! Maybe you can solve their real problem. Maybe you can't. Maybe you don't want to. Until you understand them, their reasons and their situation you can't decide. Hey, they might just be right! It's called empathy! Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca

Steve Romero
Steve Romero

Great post Jay. It is so easy to think "we" are right and the customer is wrong, and in doing so, dismiss the complaint. We should have the confidence in our position to spend the time listening and responding (as you suggest) to the customer. If we are indeed in the right, then this validation process should result in our vindication. If not, then the lesson learned will no doubt be valuable. Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist http://community.ca.com/blogs/theitgovernanceevangelist/

Derek Schauland
Derek Schauland

Wow. That's a great post Jay. The idea that someone who is difficult or willing to speak up is just looking at the problem with a different set of eyes or perspectives, as easy as it seems, is huge. Thanks for this.

bamgboyeayo
bamgboyeayo

I do support this view. This is the mistake that most poeple working on change management makes. They tend to exclude or ignore people that are oppose to change, instead trying to win their minds or defeat their theories.

adams_john73
adams_john73

I took on a difficult client a few years back. I immediately noticed they had a strained relationship with all their other IT vendors. We did a few small development projects for them that went OK. The IT manager was aloof and slow to respond to requests. On the last engagement we delivered everything that we agreed to do and more. The CFO started referring to conversations that never took place and insisted that we quoted them a rate that was approximately 25% of our agreed upon rate. As it turns out, the CFO was mentally unstable (and had been for years) but because she was an owner, she was never removed from her position. In the end they stiffed us for the development costs and we just walked away from the engagement. My take away - difficult clients have that reputation for a reason. Just make sure you're not taking on a liability and entering a no-win situation.

Jay Rollins
Jay Rollins

I have seen your classifications in action, but never really labeled them. I think it would be helpful to understand the type of complainer, but I would suggest that this understanding should only affect your approach to these customers. I think there is value potential from all, but adjusting your approach based upon type can help you diffuse faster so you can get to the nuts faster.

Jay Rollins
Jay Rollins

Funny side affect here also is that these customers become huge fans of you and your company once you address their complaint with respect. Still nothing better than word-of-mouth marketing!

Steve Romero
Steve Romero

I agreed with the original post, but you have added a dimension here that doesn't necessarily coincide with the concepts. The post had to do with customer satisfaction and our tendency to dismiss this dissatisfaction outright by characterizing the customer as "difficult." This is not the same as when we are trying to get folks to accept a "change." I think we can all agree that it is human nature to resist change. I think it is the #1 reason process implementation and improvement efforts fail - we neglect managing the change. And though I am a fervent believer in managing change and the inevitable resistance to change, I also know there are some folks I will never get to accept the change. I was introduced to the following "formula" by the great Michael Hammer. He suggested that in every process change effort we can expect the following: - 20% of the folks are all for the change - process pom-poms in hand and ready to lead the charge - 20% are against the change, claiming, "We have never done it this way before. This is crazy. Who came up with this ridiculous idea?" - 60% are "fence-sitters." They don't have a strong opinion one way or the other. Since being exposed to this concept, I have seen it play out again and again. In the past, I would have immediately responded to the naysayers, doing everything I could to convince them and win them over. I have since found that either you can't or if you can, the value returned is rarely commensurate with the amount of time and energy that went into this effort. Yes, we should listen to them and respond to their complaints and concerns, but we need to take care not to be frozen by their resistance. The fact is when it comes to change, we will lose some folks that just refuse to budge. Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist http://community.ca.com/blogs/theitgovernanceevangelist/

QASIMARA
QASIMARA

In 1773, John Adams was 38. He had lots of Koo Coo Crazies to deal with too.

ginstfan
ginstfan

I agree wholeheartedly with Jay Rollins but do concede it is important to distinguish between difficult and unreasonable customers. Assuming you're not dealing with an unreasonable customer, interactions with difficult customers are invaluable opportunities to demonstrate your commitment and value to the customer. In 34 years of customer interaction, I have never failed to strengthen my relationship with the customer - even in cases where the problems could not be resolved in the customer's favor - simply because they recognized the value I made in working to improve something to their benefit. It is understandable human nature to avoid unpleasant things but sticking through it is a tremendous opportunity to separate yourself from the competition and demonstrate real value to customers.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

adjusting your approach can help your own reactions. After all if you are angry or reacting emotionally, you're no longer looking for the truth in what they have to say. For example, there's no point in taking the heavy-hitter, the squeaky wheel or the extremist to heart. They yell, it's just in their makeup. Let them yell themselves out, then respond calmly. Eventually, you might get their real opinion out in the open (with a more rational emotional content). (Note that this applies to good comments from the heavy-hitter as well. Things are never as good as they say they are.). Similarly, the poker player's complaint has more to do with their hidden agenda. You may end up spending a great deal of time trying to get to the core of the complaint or fixing the complaint only to have them switch horses in the middle. Chasing their complaint is a fool's game. (I once had a complaint from a customer on which I spent 6 months and twice the income ... turns out their earnings were 1/4 of what they expected so they were trying to avoid paying in order to "save money". All the complaints were a screen.) The key is to show empathy, walk in their shoes for a few minutes. Listen. Reflect. Understand. But don't get caught in their emotional outburst.

adams_john73
adams_john73

In his book "Winning", Jack Welch says that in his experience only 10% of people are true change agents, 80% are get-on-with-its, and the rest are resisters. He says it is important to identify resisters and remove them because they are not going to change. This view is consistent with my experience and research.

Steve Romero
Steve Romero

Jack's forumula is less optimistic and less pessimistic - at the same time! Rarely see that. The numbers differ but the pattern is the same. And I like how he gets right to the point of "removing them." I always say, you don't need to fire them... yet. Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist http://community.ca.com/blogs/theitgovernanceevangelist/

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