Many small business owners have ‘em—you know, the clients who make you cringe when you see that they’re calling. The ones who drain your energy, criticize everything and are slow to pay. Difficult customers exist in every business, for every company, and even though you may want to kick them to the curb some days, you know that it’s better to keep them if you can. So, how might you keep your difficult clients and your sanity?
1. Choose your words carefully.
I was advising a client on how to implement better business strategies when he started to complain about a difficult customer. I sat in on one of their meetings, and I could tell right away that it was my client’s words that were creating the tension, and my client wasn’t even aware of it. For example, my client said he would “hash out the details” at a later date, and his customer cringed. His customer tended to use less confrontational terms like “bring clarity” rather than “hash out.” I suggested that my client listen carefully in their next meeting and mirror the terms that his customer used. It worked. They were on the same page, accomplishing what needed to be done, with zero conflict. Mirroring your customers’ words can help put them at ease and assures them that you understand their needs.
2. Add FroMLE to the end of ignorant statements.
This little gem has gotten me through many a difficult conversation with everyone from clients to relatives to friends. It stands for “from my limited experience,” and the trick is to add this phrase—mentally—to the end of statements others say that offend you.
For example, say you're an accountant, and one of your difficult clients tells you that accountants are just glorified calculators. It’s insulting and infuriating, but if you tack on FroMLE to the end of that statement in your head, it helps soften the blow. Perhaps he thinks little of accountants because he doesn’t understand the complexity of the work a good accountant does. Try this trick, and it may change your perceptions and makes you more tolerant of the sometimes idiotic things that emerge from your difficult clients’ mouths.
3. Be very specific, use measurables.
There are times when difficult clients, even ones who have legitimate concerns, mostly just want to unload on you—at great length and repeatedly. When you find your client making broad generalizations like “nothing’s working” or “you never finish on time,” then your best bet may be to make them get specific. Consider asking them for specific examples of what troubles them and then propose specific, measurable remedies for the problem. Ask them point blank: “If we solve your problem, does that fix this situation?” Specifics may be your friend when you’re dealing with difficult clients.
4. Acknowledge, but don’t agree.
Sometimes agreeing with a client may add fuel to the fire. If you can acknowledge their position and shift the conversation to the resolution, you may shift away from the ranting and toward a solution for their complaint.
5. Pin down the outcome.
Keep your focus on what your client wants you to achieve. If you’re running around dealing with petty details, you may not actually be working toward the end goal. Don’t waste your time treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease.
6. Use visual reminders and document it.
I’m a fan of face-to-face or Skype meetings, even more so with problem clients. I use the visual component as a tool for herding the errant client back on topic if they start to stray. I use a whiteboard and jot down the client’s complaints, and as we move through them, if the client starts to rehash what we’ve already settled, I point to the whiteboard and remind them that we’ve solved that problem and we’re moving on.
7. Recognize a real personality conflict.
Sometimes you’re just going to run into an oil-and-water scenario where you can’t find a way to work with a specific client. Your best bet may be to find another member of your staff to assign to the client. You might ask the client who they’d prefer to handle their account, so they don’t feel slighted, but rather realize that you’re providing them with exemplary customer service.
8. Fire them.
When all else has failed, and when the emotional drain is no longer worth the revenue, it may be best to cut your losses and move on. You get to spend your time working with more productive clients, and one of your competitors may get your irrational client. That’s a win-win.
The majority of the time, one of the first seven tactics will hopefully resolve your difficult client situation. If you’re thoughtful, focused on specifics and speaking your client’s language, you may rarely have to cut a customer loose.
Read more articles on customer service.
A version of this article was originally published on April 18, 2014.