Your Most Challenging Customer – Do You Know What to Do When it is Time to Part?


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Many years ago, when I was just a laddy working in the take-home beer business, we had a tiny department in a dark corner of the building that was our Consumer Complaints Department. I was an accountant at the time and I have three vivid memories of the Customer Complaints Department

  • they gave away money and vouchers, and hence my initial financial interest
  • they told the craziest stories of how customers tried to extract money from us with the most incredulous tales of woe
  • they participated in a cross-industry database of serial complainers.

Even back in the early 90s they had an interesting approach to customer complaints – on the first instance they gave a no quibble refund or compensation (which I hated as their accountant), on the second instance they refunded the customer but their details went on the database and on the third instance they let the customer know they had noticed that the customer seemed to be having a lot of problems with our products.

Complaints and complainers lie at the heart of great customer service operation where they are studied and the feedback is used constructively to improve the customer experience going forwards. A paper by Wysocki, Kepner and Glasser at the University of Florida separated customers into 5 types – the meek customer who will generally not complain, the aggressive customer who will readily complain, loudly and at length, the high-roller customer who expects the very best and is prepared to pay for it, the chronic complainer who is never satisfied but is typically a good customer and the rip-off customer who is determined to get something they are not entitled to.

Ever since my early days, auditing the Customer Complaints Department in the broom cupboard office with no windows, working through various customer facing operations, there has always been an awareness of the “rip-off” customers – I am sure every company has their own internal term for them but the most frequent I hear is “the screamer”. I squirm when I hear that expression because by not correcting the user I am advocating a view that it is alright to be disrespectful of customers. Yes, the customer may be challenging but they are your customer, and for some reason they are prepared to jeopardise your relationship. I always try and run anything that I say through a filter of “how would I feel if I was quoted in a newspaper?” and being published using a disrespectful label for any customer would make me and my company feel exceptionally uncomfortable.

Letting customers go

There is clearly a point where your gut instinct will tell you that you need to make the decision to part company with certain customers. Left to fester their impact on you and your organisation will be corrosive:

  • senior management time is drawn into conversations that become a perpetual loop
  • time is taken up coming back to the same issue that could be better spent on other customers
  • if the customer is particularly challenging then people handling the contact will be stressed if not distressed. When I have personally been handling customer escalations I have been threatened with consumer TV programmes (Watchdog in the UK), regulators, a social media campaign and the print press.
  • progressing the relationship is not in your company’s interest – compensation and time spent managing the customer completely erode the customer’s long term value.

When this article was bouncing around in my head the term “firing the customer” kept coming up. But then I was inspired by a brilliant post by Kate Nasser, the people-skills coach who said simply “I am not firing the customer, as the current threatening phrase likes to power tout, I am firing myself”. And with that nefarious phrase hopefully put to sleep forever, how should you go about “firing yourself”?

  1. Ensure that the relationship is beyond repair. Take one last moment to check with the customer “what could I do that would make you happy?” This is a “cards on the table” moment that will either contradict or confirm your gut instinct.
  2. Work in facts and be objective. Often the threats of these customers to go to the press are empty, however, you must remain above reproach as anything you say or write could go viral and completely change the perspective of the debate that you have had. The key is to remain genuine yet completely objective. Clarify, without emotion, the key reasons that you think the relationship cannot be salvaged.
  3. Be polite. Always remain polite with the customer and avoid the temptation to meet frustration or aggression head on. Avoid being “the big company” – show humility and be human.
  4. Apologise. “I am sorry that we can’t reach an agreement on this”.
  5. Offer the customer an alternative. Let it be their decision to leave if you can’t satisfy them and offer them contact details for alternative suppliers.

Complaints that have escalated to the point where you have to let a customer go will always be difficult but the impact on your business and your people of fighting to satisfy these customers is significantly worse. When the time comes be decisive.

You have read how I feel about the most challenging customers. Do you deal with them any differently?

Dougie Cameron
Having worked in major blue chip organisations in both senior finance and customer service roles Dougie is described as a strategist, planner and implementer. In his own words he describes himself as "a reformed financier on the road to enlightenment". But most of all he is just plain frustrated by poor leadership and bad customer experiences. Dougie founded addzest consulting to help companies find their way to engage their teams to give customers better.


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