No business survives without clients—and no business has clients for long before it becomes apparent that some clients are more difficult than others. We asked three business owners to discuss their most difficult clients and reveal how they deal with them.
Rich Stump is founder of Fathom, a 3D printing company in Oakland, California; Susan Stoga is partner at Carson Stoga Communications, a marketing communications company in Schaumburg, Illinois; and Dawn Reshen-Doty is president of Benay Enterprises, an administrative management and bookkeeping service firm in Danbury, Connecticut.
Are difficult clients a significant challenge for your business? In what way?
Rich Stump: In the 3D printing business, often we have customers with really tight deadlines. When engineers and designers get in a bind where they need something urgently, people behave differently. And a lot of times they’re good clients we want to retain. So it’s definitely a challenge for us.
Susan Stoga: In our business, we find two kinds of difficult clients: the client that doesn’t understand how the process works and wants things to happen that can’t always happen, and the client who wants things a certain way. It can be very difficult.
Dawn Reshen-Doty: In our business, clients tend to need things like a financial report customized at the last minute. Clients love to give you things at the last minute. I have a client in the midst of an acquisition that wanted us to do some reporting that’s totally different from what we normally do. We try to educate them, saying this is different and it will take some time to meet your needs.
What problems do you have besides time pressure? Are clients ever rude to employees?
Stump: We get that a lot. I see it more with male engineers talking to female employees. There’s vulgar language, all kind of things. If it’s a client you want to retain, then there’s a process we’ll flow through. If not, we gracefully fire this client. But typically we’ll get someone from management involved, and that calms the person down. Before I can address it further, I have to get them to a place where they’re comfortable, by showing empathy and listening and getting them confident we can solve their problem. I develop that rapport, and then I address how they treated one of our team members. A lot of times they’re just really stressed out. Then they apologize.
Reshen-Doty: I fired one client last year who was disrespectful to the staff. I have to be the advocate for my staff. I can’t allow people to disrespect them. But you also have to deal with clients from a place of patience and calm. First, I try to calm them down. I’ll say that I understand. I’m not agreeing, but I’m trying to get them to relax. Then I’ll let them know how our staff has been working on this. I try to never get defensive, because then it turns into a battle.
Can you tell us about a specific difficult client that stands out in your mind?
Stoga: We had a client who had a product recall right before the holidays. We were staffing phone calls 24/7 over the holidays, and about 7 o’clock Christmas morning, I had three callers, including one who was on hold and one who was leaving voicemail. The client’s vice president of sales called and read us the riot act because a fourth caller couldn’t get through. I said that we had already handled the caller, and if he was still upset about it tomorrow, to have the president of the company call me. Setting boundaries is important. You have to empathize, but you have to set boundaries.
Reshen-Doty: The client that was the most difficult was sending rude emails to the staff and was rude on the telephone, yelling. For several months, I sent emails asking them to address the staff in a different way and not to yell. Finally I said, “We work for you, so we’re like your staff. I really hope you wouldn’t treat your staff this way.” When the person said, “I treat my staff however the hell I like,” I realized it was not a good fit for us. I said, “I’m going to give you 30 days notice. We’ll help you transition to another firm.” My staff was so happy and relieved. They felt I had their backs. So the loss of that client was really not a concern. They all redoubled their efforts to find a new one and did, very quickly.
Stump: We had a client we were doing a manufacturing project for. This client didn’t understand the technical aspects of the project and thought we weren’t performing at the expected level. The customer started getting very angry and sending emails and saying not so nice things to my staff. We met with the customer and came up with a plan to find a new program manager, because there were some cultural differences. We wanted the team member to know we had their back and were supportive. So we presented it in a way that it was a positive situation. But when we assigned the new team member, we had a meeting with the customer and were very frank, addressing what we thought was inappropriate behavior on his part. This was a face-to-face meeting, and it was remarkable to see the customer reflect on his behavior and see that it was inappropriate.
Are difficult customers becoming more common?
Stump: I think it’s very geography dependent. We find in Silicon Valley, our customers are very impatient and much more high-stress. In slower-paced areas, customers tend to be a lot more open and patient. And I think today’s environment in general is much different. Bad news can travel very quickly these days. With Yelp and Twitter, it can affect our brand very quickly, so a sense of urgency in handling things effectively is much more important.
Stoga: We are all under pressure, including our clients. Gone are the days when you could get an email and reply in 24 hours. People expect you to reply within minutes. An hour is acceptable. In two hours, they’re complaining on Twitter and Facebook. The social media channels allow people to demand a more immediate response. If you don’t do that, your brand can be damaged.
Read more articles on customer engagement.