“He would make a lovely corpse.” – Charles Dickens

Eventually, we all have to call on difficult customers. You know who they are. They are grumpy, angry, confrontational, cheap, lazy, critical, and picky. No matter how hard you try, it is hard to meet their expectations. Just picking up the phone to talk with them is a chore, so you avoid calling them whenever possible.

Most of the time, you find yourself “clicking” with the majority of your customers; it is as if they speak your language. You might have something in common like a hobby or passion for a sports team; whatever it is makes doing a business a pleasure.

Occasionally, you find yourself on the other side of the table with customers who seemingly have come from another planet. No matter what you say or no matter how hard you try, you struggle to get along with them, let alone sell them anything. The good news in this situation is that you are aware that something is wrong; the hard part is doing something to improve the relationship, if that is possible. Remember, you don’t have to be best friends to do business.

When selling to difficult customers preparation can help make things go smoother. Ask yourself what is important to them? What do they desire most out of a relationship with you? What do they value? What do they least desire? What do they want to get accomplished? Push aside your needs and put the focus on them.

For example, if they don’t want to do small talk at the beginning of the meeting, don’t do it. Sure, it may be your nature to talk about the weather or family, but if they want to get to business immediately don’t try to slow them down. If they don’t want to shake hands, don’t offer your handshake.

Acknowledge that people may be different than you and that it is OK. You may be very “amiable” and relationship-focused, which is a terrific behavioral profile to have as a sales person, but your customers may not be that way. While you are eager to show pictures of your kids or your last family vacation, some customers might find this photo sharing an incredible waste of time.

Some people are very “analytical” and prefer to look at spreadsheets and don’t care about getting to know you. That is just the way they are. They want to calculate ratios and evaluate trend lines. They are plodding in their decision making but absolutely resolute once they make up their mind. They don’t say much, but you should listen carefully when they speak because they have been rehearsing this speech for a long time. They are seldom wrong or speak out of turn. More often than not, they are right.

Other customers may be “drivers” who want to get things done quickly; they likely will have a strong task orientation and have little need for relationships and small talk. They want to get down to business. Their office might be void of family photos and their desk might have a yellow pad of paper with a meeting checklist in front of them. They are ready for battle and know exactly what they want to get done.

Other customers might be very “expressive” and will need lots of talk time; they will have an intense need to let you know how they feel. In fact, they will feel so compelled to talk about the problem that nothing will get done until they get it out of their system. For example, if your expressive customer is angry, ask them why? Shut up and listen. Make good eye contact. Take a few notes. When they are done with their rant try summarizing what they said and let them confirm that you “got it right”.

Often this purging of the problem is all that they really needed. By letting them blow off some steam, you can then get on with the meeting. But, if they have been holding on to this anger for a long time, they might need to repeat themselves a few times. Stay cool and let them finish. If you have some repair work to do, tell them what you will do and when you will do it. I suggest you put that in writing and then deliver exactly as you said you would.

More often than not, difficult customers are not being difficult just to spite you. Instead, they just do things differently than you. It is up to you to accommodate them and be flexible.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.

About the author
  1. Steven Jaksch

    Being in the business of relationship management, difficult clients can become some of your greatest assets. They are difficult usually for a good reason. A lot of times their expectations have not been met, their needs addressed or simply have been burned to many times by others agendas. Let them come to you on their terms and with their agenda.

    There will be times also where they are simply a “difficult” client. There are some realtionships that are not appropriate to maintain, for yourself, the client and in some cases your firm.

  2. Steve,

    Agreed. Sometimes customers are difficult for good reason and we may be the cause. Thus, it is always smart to listen and ask why.

    Occasionally, a customer cannot pleased; he or she may be a poor fit with your offering. After exhausting all measures and remedies, it might be best to send him or her elsewhere.

    As a former boss of mine used to say, “Not everyone gets the honor of being our customer”.


Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

clear formSubmit

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.