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5 Tips to Effectively Manage Difficult Customers

 Best of ICMI articles in 2020 - #4 

Early in my career, I hated receiving support calls from a certain difficult customer - “Robert”. Robert usually needed help with a legitimate issue, but would also pepper me with questions about my integrity and that of my company and our product, among other things. He wasn’t nice about it, either.

The relationship wasn’t always an easy relationship, but Robert eventually became one of our best customers, serving as a reference and advocate for us, and gave brutally honest feedback that helped improve our products and client experience.

The reality is that problems will occur, customers will complain, and yet we must find a way to constructively move forward. Over time, unintentional neglect, mistakes, and miscommunication happen, causing difficulties in even the best of customer relationships. Handle this conflict well and it becomes an opportunity but handle it poorly and you may not recover. Here are some strategies that can help you turn your most difficult customers into your best, just as we did with Robert.

Assume good intent

This is one of my favorite principles because it is so effective. It’s natural to feel a bit defensive when you are dealing with a complaint or conflict, so check yourself and believe the customer is coming from a place of good intent. Often, you will find this assumption is correct. Customers generally want to resolve issues and have a constructive long-term relationship. To successfully deal with the conflict, embrace this principle.

Trolls are out there but they are the exception, not the norm – especially in a B2B relationship. These are the folks that throw a tantrum or demand to speak with a manager about the slightest inconvenience. They are generally more interested in the concessions they will demand of you instead of moving past the issue and repairing the relationship. If you realize you’re dealing with a troll, you will need a different strategy (and this article probably won’t help).

While often difficult to work with, Robert was not a troll. He simply wanted a reliable product and service he could trust. No matter his tone, we always believed he wanted to find a constructive way to work together and this helped us navigate some tough situations.

Address the issue

Listen with empathy and seek to understand the customer’s point of view about the situation. Get specifics about the issue when possible - it’s hard to resolve generalities. Thank the customer for bringing this to your attention. Then, develop a plan to resolve each issue they mentioned, one by one.

Your follow-through is key to your success, so deliver honesty and have impeccable execution. Messing this up will erode the trust you are working hard to restore. Deliver on your promises and provide appropriate and timely communication along the way.

Leverage your team

Your goal is to help the customer establish trust with your company, not just you. Although you should be their main point of contact as the issue is resolved, look for opportunities to pull in your colleagues. When you involve others from your team and beyond, your customer understands your collective commitment to the relationship and will eventually trust others to help them.

Customers may love having a named contact, but being single-threaded will eventually result in failure. What happens when the client needs your help and you took the day off? Or, what happens if you decide to leave the company? Don’t be the lone hero.

As it was appropriate, we introduced Robert to other support agents and colleagues throughout the organization. This helped him understand we were on his team and there were many who could help him.

Don’t stop when the issue is resolved

Conflict is not an open and closed transaction. As much as we want to move forward, we do not immediately go back to everything being all sunshine and rainbows. After a conflict, the relationship is fragile, so use this critical time to address lingering emotions and establish trust. This doesn’t always need to be a conversation, rather we must be consistent in our actions and communication to restore that trust. Your actions must demonstrate your commitment to the relationship beyond the support interaction. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it in the long run.

While Robert’s immediate goal was to get the issue fixed, he asked tough questions because he wanted to ensure our small, start-up company could be trusted for the long term. We were consistent with our words and actions even beyond the support issue. With time, we had established a relationship with Robert rooted in trust.

Involve the customer

Customers love transparency. They don’t need to know everything that your company is working on, but giving them an inside peek at something that matters to them can really help them feel like a valued partner. Perhaps you can have your product management colleagues join the client on a call to preview roadmap items. You can do this at scale with a webinar or recording.

When Robert gave feedback, we thanked him for it, then showed him how it was (or sometimes was not) impacting decisions we were making within our organization. He appreciated being pulled “into the tent,” and doing so really helped develop trust.

When you’re confronted with difficult customers and difficult situations, I encourage you to look beyond what they are at that moment. Sure, you could easily roll your eyes and do just enough to get them off the phone, but this is a missed opportunity. Had we been dismissive of Robert and brushed him off as just a difficult customer, he would have not been a customer for long. Thankfully, we were able to see beyond the challenges to nurture a constructive relationship.