The tricky ones, when customers turn bad

Problem customers can go a long way to spoiling your enjoyment of work. This article looks at some simple tips for solving them and for heading off issues before they arise.

Although difficult customers will always be with us, it’s still very possible to deal with them effectively. Here are some tips that I hope will help.

Listen first

Sales managers often advise their staff that we all have two ears and one mouth. That’s for a reason – we should listen twice as much as we talk. It’s true and when customers complain, listening carefully is the first thing to do.

A study in the USA found that competent doctors got sued as often as incompetent ones. What made the difference was their bedside manner. Arrogant doctors got sued. Nice doctors didn’t, even useless ones!

It’s a lesson for installers. It’s critical to listen to customers with respect, even when they’re wrong.

Some useful techniques

Here are some straight-forward tips that will usually help with problem customers.

  • Don’t make things an issue if a problem is quick to fix, whoever it’s down to. It’s just not worth it. Just overcome your feeling of right and wrong and be pragmatic and fix it straight away.
  • First listen carefully and then repeat back to the customer what they said in different words. Then ask for their confirmation. That will disarm them as they will feel they are being heard.
  • Don’t take it personally. The customer may be emotional but do your best to keep your emotions under control and stay factual.
  • Say sorry wherever you honestly can. If you have made a mistake, customers will be twice as happy if they get an apology as well as having the problem fixed. Even if you think they are wrong, you can say that you are sorry that they feel this way.
  • Never answer a complaining email with an email. Instead, always meet face to face or call them. Responding by email will inflame things unless you simply say “Sorry I will fix the problem tomorrow.”
  • Start building trust by making a small commitment and then delivering. For instance, promise to come round quickly then turn up on time. If you do that, the attitude of the customer will usually start softening.
  • If they are right, deal fairly with them even if they have been over-aggressive. Then fix things quickly. I don’t mind mistakes, but I get really cross if fixing it doesn’t seem to be a priority.
  • If you think the customer is wrong, make 100% sure before you say so. Never fill in blanks with guesswork and never tell them what their motivations are – you don’t know. It may be worth checking out your response with a friend or relative who will tell you the truth. It could be that you are fooling yourself.
  • Check out what they are looking for. Asking helps them to be more reasonable. When they want something stupidly unreasonable it may start dawning on them as they are about to speak.

Setting right expectations

The best problem is the one that you avoid before it even comes up, and setting customer expectations correctly is the key to this. Gas Installer John McLouglin knows from experience to put the following in all of his quotes: “Subject to no significant discoveries that could not have been reasonably anticipated’.” This explains to the customer that problems that arise due to issues that weren’t visible when the quote was done can’t be covered. That might be a crumbling wall or a pipe embedded in concrete that needs connecting.

Another useful thing to say when you are doing a quote, both in writing and verbally, is “Anything not specifically mentioned is not included in this quote”. That also helps to avoid misunderstandings.

When all is done

My hope is that some of these ideas will help. Everyone gets things wrong from time and occasionally we will encounter unreasonable customers. Maybe whenever it’s all been resolved you should give yourself a small reward!

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