Things are not going well with my customer Fred. Here, let me let him explain:
“I am more than willing to pay for your services -- I just didn't get what I paid for.”
“If I was advised upfront of the charges I wouldn’t have agreed.”
“It still is not working. Would you be okay for a service that you didn't get?“
“That is not how I understood it. I am frustrated with your company.”
What can I do here? Fred is obviously not happy with me. He hired my company to help him install a software application on his computer and is dissatisfied with the services. What would you do if Fred was your customer?
Wait. Before answering that, you’ll need a little more background. Fred runs a very small company made up of…well…just Fred (he’s an independent insurance agent). Before embarking on our little project, Fred had a hundred questions. Once started, Fred continued his barrage of questions, both by email and phone. His budget, as you can guess, was miniscule. Fred unfortunately suffers from selective memory as well -- he doesn’t seem to remember the issues, challenges and costs that my staff explained to him before getting started. He heard only what he chose to hear and now wants the job done based on his perception of what the costs would be.
We will never be right. We will never win. Even pointing him to the contract that he signed which explained the costs is fruitless. Fred, like most of our small business customers, signed it, but never read it -- of course. Why do I even send these contracts anyway? And what are we going to do…sue him? Frankly, the more time we argue with Fred the more money we lose on this little customer. This nuisance customer. C’mon…you have them too. What do you do with guys like Fred? Here’s what I’ve learned:
Look at the long term. As much as I’d like to please Fred, I’ve got a business to run. This little project was only a few hundred bucks. And considering the amount of angst Fred caused my staff, there was little profit. But could Fred potentially be a big client? Might he be interested in spending a lot more money in the future with us? Does he have relationships or connections with others that could turn into big dollars? If so, then it’s worth sucking up the losses. But not in this case. I doubt he’d ever spend another penny with my company, happy or not. And though I can never be certain, I don’t see any of his friends knocking on my door with that next million dollar deal. Keeping him as a customer offered little future economic benefit.
Never fire your customer. Even though I see no future with Fred, I’m not going to fire him. Why? Because I admit that I’m a prostitute. I’ll do business with Satan himself if I can legally make a few bucks. So I stood firm. I politely (see below) told him that I’m happy to help him and this is what our charges would be. I’m not in the business of giving stuff away, particularly when we really did nothing wrong (at least this time). I leave the decision up to Fred. If he wants to work with us, great. If not, that’s completely up to him. I’m prepared to lose him because the long term doesn’t look very profitable (see above) so I’ll let him decide. I may decide to double my hourly fees, but I’ll never fire him.
Always, always, always be polite and professional. The worst thing you can do with an unhappy customer is to fight with him. No, that’s not the worst thing. The worst thing is to fight with him over email! We’ve all done this. And then we cringe when we look back at the conversations a few weeks later. Even if the customer is calling your mother a hook-nosed, wart-faced witch you should never respond in kind. Keep it polite and professional. Take the high road. You can have fun with this too, just watch how exasperated the angry customer gets as you reply back to him with cheer. More importantly you’ll never be ashamed of your behavior months later. And who knows who will read these emails then?
Never blame your employees. Even though Fred was an impossible customer, some mistakes were made by my employees. Even so, you must never blame them in front of the customer. Talk to them offline if necessary. Keep a unified face. Stand behind your people. In the long run, knowing that you have their back will keep them loyal. Valuable employees are as important as valuable customers. You’re the boss. It’s your business. You failed to adequately supervise the job, train your people or handle the situation. Step up and take responsibility.
Always remember…no one bats a thousand. My company has 600 active clients. We sell mostly to small- and medium-sized businesses. I can’t possibly please everyone. In fact, I’m happy if two-thirds of my clients are happy. There will always be a group of people that have an issue at any given part of the day. Don’t let it bother you. Accept that as fate.
“I will take my business elsewhere,” Fred said to me. I had offered to keep working with him, as long as he paid. He didn’t like that option. It’s a free country. He’s free to be a nuisance and not pay someone else. And I’m free to find better, more profitable customers. I don’t like unhappy customers, but I’ve learned not to get too upset about them.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Gene Marks is president of The Marks Group, a ten-person Philadelphia-based consulting firm specializing in sales and marketing technologies. Gene is the author of six books, most recently, The Manufacturer's Book Of List (CreateSpace - October, 2013).