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When dealing with difficult customers, should you battle it out or bail?

Regardless of the sales environment, it is virtually impossible to avoid encounters with difficult customers. These are the customers that are always demanding more service, never satisfied with the performance of the product, and undoubtedly make the sales profession frustrating. Fortunately, by utilizing a few simple skills it is possible to take some of the frustration out of dealing with difficult customers and actually make dealing with them an exciting challenge. Just remember that most loyal customers will almost always be the ones who had an adequately solved problem, rather than the customers who never had a problem.

What makes them tick?
Before being able to deal with the complicated customer it is first important to understand what it is that makes them behave in this fashion? In most cases when a person acts out it is usually a combination of things frustrating the individual. Discovering the root of the problem provides insight on possible solutions that sales personnel can provide to help alleviate the problem. And, if the customer is continually coming back or utilising your organisation’s services, it is apparent that the customer also would be willing to work out the situation. According to Mike Nikolich, founder and CEO of Tech Image, Ltd. (, a public relations firm located in Arlington Heights, Ill., “It is crucial to understand the customer, and if you do your homework it is possible to satisfy even the toughest customers. People with strong personalities are routinely looking for someone to first understand the need and then offer proof as to why a specific product or service would sufficiently meet the requirements.”

In many situations, the customer is overworked and sees the dealing with vendors as a troublesome yet necessary evil so this routinely shows up in its actions. Some of this can be alleviated through the implementation of a “partnership approach” with the customer. As a “partner” the customer can feel assured that someone is looking out for its best interests rather than just looking to close a deal.

In order to enter into a “partnership” with the customer, the ability to find a common ground and mutual respect for one another is imperative. In order to initiate this process, listen to the true complaints that the customer has and look for the common underlying reason. Essentially, find the frustration or the bottleneck in the existing process before going any further. Although this may be evident, expect that it may take some work to pinpoint. With over thirty years in industry management, Jerry Mitchell, President Jerry R. Mitchell and Associates, Inc based in Naperville , Ill. comments, “I am looking for a supplier that is willing to listen to my needs before trying to provide me with a solution. If the sales person is not willing to listen, how can they truly understand what is going to suit the customer’s individual needs?”

Remember that a key portion of partnership is listening and avoiding making the assumption that the problem always lies with the other party. In many cases, by listening to the advice or the complaint that the individual is vocalizing, it is possible to alter the organization’s offering in a positive manner that will not only resolve the difficulties with this account, but will also end up suiting the needs of additional firms.

Provide solutions
With a strong understanding of what ails the customer, investigate what can be done to provide a solution to its problem. However, keep in mind that the key to success in providing a solution is to avoid overselling. Overselling will only be met with insurmountable resistance. Furthermore, avoiding overselling is not as difficult as it may seem. By simply approaching each situation recognizing the transaction as an opportunity to foster or develop an ongoing relationship, a more future-geared outlook will result rather than the desire for immediate gratification. Although profit is always important, solution-oriented sales commonly avoid the “quick buck,” and look more towards gaining the loyalty and respect of the client. Long-term relationships are almost always more profitable over time.

When providing the customer with a solution, have supporting documentation of why the solution will work. Whenever possible use examples of similar problems you have solved utilising the same methodology. Even though you are replacing an ineffective method, never criticize the former methodology or the firm that you are replacing — doing so will actually offend the customer (since the initial approach or firm may have been the individual’s choice) and in many cases will force the customer to defend the previous actions. Help the customer to resolve its problems through the entire implementation process of the solution and remain close by to assure success and avoid the feeling of abandonment. Without follow-up the customer typically views the solution negatively.

Once an approach is successful, document all appropriate activities. Upon finding a successful solution, an excellent prospecting tool results. For instance, although every account is different, there are many similarities in each specific industry, so when a success is evident use this to open the doors in similar accounts that may have equivalent frustrations.

Consistent, consistent, consistent
Consistency demands respect while inconsistency only leads to excuses. The most important aspect of being consistent is following through with promises and commitments. It is also imperative to maintain a continual method or approach to avoid alienating the customer with a perception of conniving approaches.

In addition, take responsibility for your actions. This includes doing as promised, admitting when you faltered, and always following up after working to solve a problem to ensure satisfaction — doing so shows a true level of commitment to the relationship on your part.

With some difficult customers it seems as if all of the time is spent putting out fires rather than ever working to develop the relationship. This is avoidable by taking a proactive approach. Obviously this is easier said than done, but it is possible with determination. Keep in mind that although the customer is not always right, they still have the right to voice their opinion. When a customer complains, the key factor that will determine the outcome relies on how the angry customer is treated throughout the entire process. As long as an employee listens to, acknowledges, and clearly understands the message that the customer is conveying without arguing with the customer, the opportunity is present to maintain the customer for life. In order to do so, listening skills, self- control and empathy are key. Utilizing these techniques in a clear and consistent manner, it is possible to calm down the customer and develop a strong relationship.

When all else fails, it is important to realize that it is just not possible to please the customer and to cut off the ties in an amicable manner. This is especially important in any situation where a Win-Win transaction is not present. Win-Win is crucial for continued survival. When one party feels as if they have had to compromise to the point that they have lost their ground resentment builds, which typically leads to rough relations during sequential transactions.

Furthermore, if the required time spent on the customer is hampering relations and service to other accounts either readjust the working of the relationship or sever ties. It is not possible to please every customer, and it is important to recognize that it is more important to walk away from a sale than to make a sale that will be more costly than profitable for your organization. However, when done in a professional manner, this account can actually serve as an outstanding reference. Honesty always prevails in the long run.

Forging ahead (sidebar)
Proactive approaches of this nature obviously sound good on paper, but since actions speak louder than words, it is important to highlight a firm that has implemented these processes into their daily sales structure. Mike Nikolich, founder and CEO of Tech Image, Ltd. (, a public relations firm located in Arlington Heights, Ill., specializes in promoting technology-based firms – many of which are operated by stubborn entrepreneurs. As a result, Nikolich has developed an approach to dealing with difficult customers that has proven quite successful. “The same sales skills that we use to deal with difficult accounts have actually helped us to improve upon our relationships with all of our accounts. By taking the time to review, understand and act upon a customer’s needs, we are able to become the supplier of choice whenever a firm is looking at implementing a new project.”

Nikolich tells a story of working with a difficult entrepreneur, Jerry R. Mitchell, over the past few years. Described as a “serial entrepreneur” by Fortune Magazine because of the many companies he has assisted in going public, Mitchell is currently president of Jerry R. Mitchell & Associates, Inc. At the time Nikolich and Mitchell initiated a relationship, Mitchell was serving as executive vice president of marketing and sales at InterAccess, a privately held data CLEC and ISP firm. Relations were quite rocky and the two actually parted ways a number of times before they were able to find a common ground. In fact they are now best of friends.

“We sat down at a breakfast meeting and realized that by listening to one another we would both be able to learn quite a bit. It was just important for us to agree that with some common goals we could actually benefit one another in our respective efforts,” states Nikolich. According to Nikolich, Mitchell is now his mentor and one of his best references and it is not uncommon for Mitchell to assist Tech Image with reviewing marketing plans of new accounts. “By noting that we are both strong willed individuals and acknowledging that we both need to speak our peace, we have been able to build an outstanding relationship,” states Mitchell. When asked for additional advice to any salesperson dealing with extremely difficult customers, Nikolich commented, “When the customer says that they are not happy, always offer the option to leave. Sometimes it is better to walk away, because life is too short.”

This Business article was written by Peter Fretty on 2/11/2005