How to deal with rogue and problem customers

Rogue and difficult customers can go a long way to spoiling your enjoyment of work. Last year Powered Now conducted a survey of over 1,000 home owners that had employed tradesmen in the previous year. We hear so much about rogue tradesmen that we thought it would be interesting to see if any owned up to being rogue customers – people who are out when they had previously arranged for trades people to come round, or who deliberately under pay or dispute bills when nothing is wrong.

A shocking 1 in 25 actually admitted to this! So much for the endless TV programs knocking trades people.

In reality there is a grey scale running from customers who are genuinely upset and may have a valid complaint through to outright scammers, although you will be unlucky to ever come across such people.

In any case, a quick rule of thumb says that no customer should generate more than 10% of your revenue. It’s designed to protect you from rogue customers that pay late or not at all or even go bust. If you smell a rat, beware. Gerald Trankell, MD of Nevada Construction avoided one disaster: “I was concerned about one job I was offered. The person was far too gushing about my company and swallowed a high price I quoted without comment. When I insisted on an up-front deposit, he bailed out. It was a narrow escape; the company that took the job never saw a penny.”

Although difficult customers will always be with us, it’s still very possible to deal with them effectively. The two critical things you can always do to reduce the chance of problems are:

  • Always try to set expectations so that customers won’t be surprised, shocked or disappointed.
  • Make sure everything is thoroughly documented. Verbal agreements in practice aren’t worth much.

Setting expectations and positioning defensively

A couple of tips we have picked up from trade business we have dealt with are around setting customer expectations. Often, complaints can arise when the customer expects something that you didn’t and never planned to deliver.

Gas Engineer John McLouglin has this advice: 

“On my quotes I always say ‘Subject to no significant discoveries that could not have been reasonably anticipated’.”  

This covers things like unknown damage to existing installations or other difficulties that are only revealed when the work has started. Another good thing to state in quotes is that “Any work not specifically included in this quote is excluded”. This all helps to avoid misunderstandings before they arise.

Documenting everything

Products like Powered Now can provide significant help in documenting communications with customers. All documents sent are automatically noted and can be accessed through the customer well after the event. Customers can accept quotations online, and this is noted. Powered Now keeps a running total of accepted quotes and what has been invoiced making it much easier to tie everything up.

You cannot come out a winner

For most people in business, the saying that “the customer is always right” can be a bit irritating because it isn’t true. Rather, the problem is that the customer can always win, because they can waste huge amounts of your time, then abuse you online, create problems with trading standards and in the extreme case even take legal action. These outcomes are never good for you, so being professional in heading them off makes good business sense.

However good we are at our job, we or our staff will always make mistakes. This is a fact of life. So sometimes “problem customers” aren’t that at all, they are customers upset by a mistake or poor workmanship.

So you may not find the following advice that palatable, but it is still the most sensible course of action. All-out war is the road to ruin, at least in business terms.

Make it a priority

Confrontation is unpleasant and nobody enjoys dealing with upset customers, but the job of doing this shouldn’t be delegated. My co-founder is also a non-executive director for a major company, one of the hundred largest in the UK. Although this company has nearly a million customers, when the chief executive receives a letter of complaint addressed to him he answers it personally. Few people expect that and it immediately disarms them. At the same time it keeps his feet on the ground and sends a message to the business that customer service matters. Not surprisingly this company both has a great reputation for service and is very profitable.

Responding quickly to a complaint is also crucial. If there is no response, the problem will often grow in the customer’s mind and make them even more angry. That means that it will be harder to deal with.

Two ears, one mouth

Sales managers often advise their staff that we all have two ears and one mouth. That’s the proportion of listening to talking that is about right. When it comes to difficult customers that needs to be the single most important principle of dealing with them.

A few years ago there was an interesting study in the USA. This discovered that there is no correlation between the competence of doctors and whether they get sued. Instead, their bedside manner was the key factor. Bluntly, arrogant doctors got sued. Kind and patient doctors didn’t, even when they were incompetent.

That’s the lesson for the any trade or mobile business. You must always listen carefully to what customers say even if you know they are incorrect. At all costs avoid interrupting them, immediately telling them they are wrong or becoming defensive. Even if they are obviously being unfair, your listening will help towards resolution. And even if you know they are wrong, it’s sometimes best to say you will think about it before getting back to them. All this means that they will feel that they have been heard, which is the first step towards conflict resolution.

Basic rules

On top of the principles mentioned above, there are some simple rules which if you follow will help hugely in dealing with problem customers:

  • If you receive a complaint by email or online, don’t try a refute it by email or online. If the way you hear about the problem is by email, meet the customer face to face or if that isn’t possible, call them. Just check out the vitriol you can find online if you think that electronic communication ever brings opposing views together. Instead, it tends to cement people into their position.
  • It’s hard but important not to take complaints personally. It’s likely that the customer is highly emotional and if it’s the same from your side, it will just make things harder to resolve.
  • If the customer gets angry, stay calm. This can sometimes be very difficult, but responding with anger will nearly always make the situation worse. Remember that you are the professional.
  • Listen hard and attentively and then try to reflect back what the customer has said, to show that you understand. For instance “so you are saying that you believe we should have plastered the wall that the boiler was to be hung on because it crumbled as we drilled into it”.
  • Apologise as far as you can. We cover the situation where you believe you are in the right below. Studies have shown that when you make a mistake, customers will be twice as satisfied if they get an apology as well as having the mistake fixed, as if the there is no apology.
  • Make some small commitment that will start rebuilding trust. Arranging a quick appointment then turning up on time or promising to investigate and get back by a certain time, then delivering, is great for doing this. Once you have delivered on your commitment you usually find that the atmosphere will start improving.
  • Fix the problem as far as you can. If it’s minor just do it even if it wasn’t your fault. It’s not worth the hassle of the confrontation.

How to deal with being wrong

When your customer has a genuine and reasonable complaint, even if they have presented it in an overly aggressive way, try to deal with it fairly. Admit it first. Then sort it out straight away as a priority.

One thing I feel is that there isn’t a problem when companies get things wrong. We all get things wrong sometimes. But when a mistake has been made, I expect it to be fixed straight away, not when the business has a bit of free time. That’s exactly how your customers will feel.

The strange fact funny is, if you treat customers well when things go wrong, most will be even more loyal than if everything had gone smoothly. Research has actually established this.

How to deal with being right

When you believe that you are in the right, the first priority is to ensure this is really true. It’s far too easy to jump to conclusions, after all none of us want to think things are our fault. Maybe you know someone who won’t be afraid to tell you the truth? My wife can do that for me. If so, it’s good to consult them. The last thing you want is to get into a fight you are going to lose.

Assuming you’re in right, then say you can still say you are sorry that they feel the way they do. You can be sorry with integrity while not admitting there is a problem. It will usually calm things down and make the customer more receptive. Before going further, remember to never let things get personal and always remember how much trouble the customer can cause.

Find out exactly what they want. Sometimes that will cause people to become more reasonable. Either way you can find out what could settle the dispute. If they are genuine nutters (and unfortunately there are a few around), do enough to pacify them so they move onto their next victim, then never work with them again. I have done this before.

Disputes which you can’t settle can end up going legal, so make sure that if they do, you are going to win. You do this by taking as many notes as possible on what has happened as soon as a problem is alleged and also by taking early legal advice. Obviously having all of the basic communications recorded, as mentioned above, is also vital. It’s surprising how much all of this will help down the road.

Do they want to go the whole way?

When a customer threatens you, try asking if they want it to go to its logical conclusion. “Do you want me to stop the job (and refund the money)?” Or maybe “Do you really want this to go through months of legal wrangling, with the lawyers making pots of money from both of us?” Sometimes people feel they have huge power but haven’t thought through the logical consequences of their threats. When you show you are not scared, sometimes they back down.

Unreasonable demands

Occasionally customers will want you to carry out work that will break Health & Safety laws or good practise, otherwise behave illegally, break your own moral code or put you or your staff at unacceptable risk. Under any of these circumstances, you can’t help them, but be apologetic.

Don’t take the cowards route of just saying “it’s our policy” which can infuriate. Explain things properly in your own words.

At the end of the day

Yes, we all make mistakes and yes you will occasionally come across customers who are totally unreasonable. Fortunately, if you provide good workmanship and clear paperwork that demonstrates you are behaving reasonably, problems should be few and far between.

My wish is that some of the thoughts here will prove a help when you do occasionally encounter these issues. Just remember to give yourself a break. None of us are perfect and maybe after a problem has been resolved, whether justified or unjustified, you should give yourself a small reward to compensate for the hassle.