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Managing Difficult Customer Interactions

by Bruce Patton

We have all experienced tense moments with important customers. Perhaps they are making demands that are out of scope, yelling at us, demanding unrealistic prices, making threats, or insisting on excessive remediation measures in response to a problem. Perhaps we have made a mistake, or, despite our best efforts, not achieved the results they were hoping for. Perhaps their expectations were unreasonable.

These conversations can be very uncomfortable. What’s the best way to handle them, or better yet, if possible, avoid having to have them? While there may be no all-purpose guaranteed strategy for this, there are a few guidelines that are likely to help.

Think ahead; anticipate possible problems. One thing about good customer relationships is that they are ongoing, so how you negotiate each deal sets the kind of relationship you will have. If you negotiate the deal like you might buy a used car, you shouldn’t be surprised if the customer treats you like a car salesman. If instead you treat the customer like a partner or a close, long-term internal client, one with whom you expect to be working shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches to implement your deal and create value, you have a better chance of establishing a more collaborative and problem-solving dynamic.

It’s important to think ahead and anticipate the kinds of difficulties, challenges, and hiccups that you can reasonably anticipate a good chance of experiencing. With these in mind, try to talk through and set clear expectations up front. If there are difficult conversations to have, raise them sooner than later; they only get more difficult if you wait. And in making decisions, look for creative ways to meet everyone’s real interests, but where there is conflict, be firm in insisting on solutions that make sense to you on the merits. Even when there is disagreement about what is fair and appropriate on the merits, it is better for the relationship to be seeking a fair solution that makes sense.

If there is a problem, listen and address relationship issues first. If a customer does get upset, it’s almost always a good idea to start by listening and trying to understand the concern and the reasons for it, and then demonstrating that understanding so the customer feels heard. Provided you understand without agreeing, there’s really no downside. You learn something useful, and they feel better. Then, if you see it differently, you can share that.

If you discover that you have a relationship problem — the customer believes they have been mistreated — substance should probably be put on hold until you have addressed it. But be careful! Don’t try to “fix” the situation by generously offering something substantive the customer is asking for. Instead of repairing the relationship you may end up setting the damage in concrete. If you haven’t done something to change the customer’s perceptions of being mistreated, then your generosity is likely to be interpreted as an admission of guilt. Instead, the way to address a relationship problem is to dig into the details of the customer’s perceptions and help them see at a minimum that there is a less corrosive way to understand what happened, and at best that the situation is simply a misunderstanding with no bad intentions or negligence. If this requires a tedious slog deep into history, then so be it. However painstaking that may be to do, it is still likely to the quickest path to a healthy relationship.

Solve problems together, side-by-side. If you do discover a problem, or the customer has been treated other than as you would wish, then apologize. If it’s true, be sure to help the customer appreciate that this was not due to lack of caring or bad intent. Then invite them to think with you about how, on the merits, to remediate the situation and how to avoid a repetition. Look for an approach that will set an appropriate precedent for this and other cases, perhaps even one that might apply if at some point in the future the shoe is discovered on the other foot due to customer misconduct.

Together, these approaches can help you deal productively with difficult customer situations and head off many of them. Good luck!

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