difficult customer

The customer is always, right? If you ask Herb Kelleher, ex-CEO of Southwest Airlines, he will vehemently disagree with you. Kelleher was criticized in the 1980s when he put his employees first. In an interview, he described a situation where a customer slapped an agent who was working a flight. He said [paraphrasing], “I’m sure we can’t be happy with the customer, and thank him for beating up our agent.

Learning how to work with customers takes many years of experience. About 90% of the customers cause no problems. However, 10% are the toughies. These are the ones that are never happy, regardless of how well you do your work. They’re looking to find fault whenever possible.

#1: Make sure to stay calm.

Back in 2005, I was working with an executive-type customer. He was upset because the project work was behind schedule a couple days, even though we informed him in advance that we lacked the information needed to meet the deadline.

ROY:I don’t give a damn why it’s late. The fact is that it’s late, and I will not tolerate it!


ME:I understand, Roy. I will work with the IT team to make sure the work gets done by COB today.

ROY:I really hope so! I’m not happy with the level of service.
ME:I understand what you’re saying. Let me get this work done for now, and we can review the situation in a day or two.

ROY:Ok. Make sure I have an update by today.

ME:Sure, Roy.

#2: Avoid Trying to Prove Yourself Right

I noticed that Roy was upset, so I took the path of least resistance. I was aware that the problem rested with both of us, but this is not the time to find fault. As a project manager, my job was to solve the problem, and not to escalate the issue.

As we agreed, Roy and I talked a couple days after the issue was resolved, and he apologized for his unprofessional approach. He mentioned that the CEO was concerned about the missed deadline, and he was under tremendous pressure to get the work done. He admitted that failure to provide the content to us was the reason we were late.

#3: Don’t be Afraid to Fire Unruly Customers

While building customer accounts is important to any business, we must be prepared to fire those individuals (or companies) that are unbearable. Once we deliver the product or service we promised, we can politely let them know that our plate is full.

I’ve learned that customers who haggle too much about price during the proposal discussion will be difficult to manage. Therefore, I terminate the discussion in a professional way, and our company is better off because of it.

A business friend told me that he identified the 20% of clients that generated 80% of his annual profit. By doing so, he recommended the other 80% of his clients to companies who could service them better. He now has fewer problem clients, and has the time to provide a higher level of service to the 20% who are happy about the services he provides.