The Value of Spending Time With a Picky, Difficult Customer
Think about your customer list. Think about the big accounts and the small ones, the customers who have been with you from the beginning and the newest clients, the customers who pay the most consistently, and the customers who pay late, and the customers who need the most love from you, the business owner, to ensure that they are happy. I bet you can name them all.
Now, here’s another one: Think about the customer who is the pickiest. I bet this one is especially easy for you to name.
No matter what business you are in, from a SaaS company to a commercial real estate firm to a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer, you are sure to encounter one customer who has the most questions, who calls regularly with new and unexpected needs, who absorbs staff time like a sponge, and who generally drives you a little crazy.
And we all know, because we are human, that we have an instinct to try to avoid that customer. When you spend a lot of time personally with verbose, picky customers, you are oiling the squeaky wheel, and that’s something we are taught not to do. How we respond to this manifests itself in many different ways. It’s easy to dread calls with demanding customers. We’ve all had that feeling of thinking “I want this meeting over and we are two minutes in” — you know, the times when you preemptively want to thank the customer and close the chat before the other person has said their piece. Maybe our whole team knows to avoid that customer. When we see them in person, we gird ourselves and purse our lips a bit because while we are happy that they support the business, we also think the customer is bonkers. It’s so easy to scapegoat the most demanding and time-consuming clients.
But that’s a mistake for two reasons. First, because it’s fundamentally bad customer service. And second, it’s a missed opportunity to improve your business.
Chances are, if one customer takes time out of her day to complain about something, there are 10 more customers who have entertained similar feelings.
Get to the root of the problem
In my consulting practice working with retail and hospitality clients and training staff in hospitality and customer service, I have always advised my clients — from the business owner down to the frontline employee at the cash register — to reject the natural instinct to avoid an overly picky customer and instead get as close to that person as possible. When they have a problem, think about why they have that problem. Chances are, if one customer takes time out of her day to complain about something, there are 10 more customers who have entertained similar feelings but just haven’t bothered to tell you what’s on their mind.
Now gently interrogate the root cause of that problem. Does the issue they’re experiencing stem from a deficiency in your system? Your pickiest customer is the one who pressure-tests your whole operation, shining a light on flaws in customer service, and identifying issues early, before more complacent clients do.
Beyond that, nine times out of 10, I find that when a customer has a complaint, even if at first it seems a little bit over-the-top, you in your heart generally know where they are coming from. Maybe the account team serving them is stretched a little thin, or your past promises of just-in-time delivery have been snagged by sluggish logistics.
I got my start in restaurants and I distinctly remember the executive chefs that I worked with inspecting plates that came back from the dining room to find out what was amiss. When people sent back food, it was sometimes because they ordered the wrong thing, but also sometimes because we had a new staffer in the kitchen and they weren’t fully trained up yet. Looking closely at that plate and understanding why it didn’t come back empty is like really getting in deep with that picky customer and understanding them.
Your job as a business owner is to take the complaint, drill down on it till you find the root cause, and then figure out how to ameliorate it using the finite resources at your disposal.
A little discomfort won’t kill you
If hearing the complaint makes you a little grumpy, fine. Don’t show it, but instead own up to your role in fixing the problem they’ve shown to you.
But that’s only one scenario. There’s another reason why you should get close to your most demanding customers and stay there. And that’s because sometimes what they offer you is not a problem to fix but rather an eye toward a whole new line of business. Does the latest issue they brought up to you suggest a new opportunity to charge an incremental service fee? Their pain points just might become your next revenue stream, and that’s a beautiful thing.
When a tough customer nitpicks, you may know intuitively that you can charge extra for that level of service. If not, you may be able to take a quick poll of your existing customers to see if they would pay extra for whatever kind of VIP treatment your pickiest customer is angling for. This provides you with a way to upsell clients, pad your margins while making money on something you are already doing for some of your customers for free. And all you have to do is breathe in, breathe out, and spend a few more minutes on the phone with the customer who has demonstrated that they clearly crave your time.
And here’s one more reason why you should do this: When you spend your time, as a boss, working with a difficult customer, you are modeling excellent customer service for the rest of your team. And you also establish a true sense of solidarity with the frontline employees who are closest to the customer and crucial to your success. In too many companies, the frontline, customer-facing staff can feel a bit distant from management who speak with customers only infrequently and at a high level.
By showing that you personally can take on not just any customer but the toughest one, you demonstrate to your staff that you are in this with them, and that you have empathy for all the hoops that clients sometimes make them jump through.
In the end, I think you’ll find that your pickiest customer becomes something else: They also become your favorite, because the benefits of dealing with them have the potential to improve your business in so many different ways.