How to Handle the Difficult Customer – 7 ways to convert a challenge into a solution

“Houston , we have problem.” Have you ever felt like this famous movie line applied to you and one of your customers?

If you have been in business any length of time, I am sure you have had to handle situations with the occasional difficult customer. You know the type. They have your contract staring them in the face and swear there is no agreement on detail. They demand that your crew work overtime on weekends and holidays to finish their project for a party they planned just last week. They place a call to your office every hour, on the hour, to find out when the Cable Company is going to connect their HBO. These situations are real and they call for special skills over and above your normal amiable, professional self. Here are seven ways to manage these rare and infrequent circumstances.

Know That it is Real

Understand that the situation is real to your customer. It may seem elementary to you, the professional who has experienced it all. To the customer, this situation is new and the uncertainty of the outcome is the most bothersome thing to your customer. Certainty is one of those innate human needs that we all must have. Uncertainty may have created anxiety that manifests itself with anger, accusations or the charge that you are unprofessional. In this case, people may say things that later they will regret. In any event, allow them to vent their feelings. This may give you insight to what else they may be experiencing in their life while you are working on their project. It allows you to get a broader perspective of the challenge and more information to create a solution. 

Put It into Perspective

Is this a “code blue” situation? In other words, are lives in danger? Is there a serious threat to your reputation? Will there be severe financial damages? Consider the answers to these questions from your perspective and from that of your client. An honest appraisal of the event will help you to more freely create solutions. Putting the situation in perspective means that you will analyze the impact on your business and should influence whether to set the situation aside and for how long. Once the importance of the challenge is candidly appraised, open communication with the client is easier and hopefully, your client will see it in the overall scheme of the project. By all means, do not take it personally. See it as a situation or an event, not as a definition of you or your customer.

Express Appropriate Sympathy

Acknowledging the challenge and expressing appropriate sympathy for the situation is imperative. When you acknowledge verbally that a challenge exists, your client knows that you have heard them. They feel as though you have an understanding of their plight. This validation settles their mind to a place where they can begin to work with you on solutions. Even if there is a question about who the responsible party may be, expressing sympathy places you on common grounds with your client.

Get the Facts  

Double-check the facts of the situation. Do not hesitate to ask lots of questions and take notes in front of your customer. When a story is repeated and verified over and over, the truth tends to surface. Verifying all of the facts creates responsibility. Get clear on as much as possible. You want to know what has created the difficulty. The inquiry itself may set up a multitude of solutions.

Actively Solve the Situation  

Work to actively solve the situation. Be proactive in your approach to the solution. A challenge that is unsettled only allows matters to get worse. However, an energetic approach indicates good intent on your part. When the other parties in the situation get involved and actively work toward a solution, a synergy is created. When many people work together on a challenge, good things can happen. Your customer sees your proactive approach as a sign of sincerity. Every solution to the challenge may not be known at the outset. Your active and interested involvement may generate more solutions along the way.

Enlist Expert Help

It may be necessary to get qualified help to solve the issues. This may be in the form of outsourced experts to endorse your position or to verify that a challenge even exists. An objective opinion in many cases will diffuse the emotion of the moment when dealing with clients. An outside expert may offer solutions that neither party had considered. The expert may also help put the priorities of the issue in logical order. Experts may come in the form of engineers, product experts or specialized consultants. The idea here is to get a qualified individual to offer an unbiased opinion with the outcome of creating a solution of the issue at hand.

Agree and Deliver  

In all cases, if a challenge with a client is to get resolved, there must be agreement and delivery. My attorney friends may not like to hear this, but our objective as contractors is to keep our clients happy, our companies profitable and everyone out of court. When all of the facts and options for solutions are known, there must be mutual agreement between contractor and client for the way the matter is going to be resolved. This mutual agreement is a huge step, but delivery of the solution is the determining factor of success. It is like my father told us while growing up…”There are only two things that matter, the E’s and the R’, Excuses and Results.” Deliver the results and likely you will regain the confidence of your client. I am not naive enough to believe that every client challenge can stay out of court. I do believe that if we ask enough questions, actively search for plenty of solutions and deliver the results, we can convert the majority of client challenges into client solutions.

Until we have the honor to meet in person, remember, “Success is YOUR choice, choose well.”

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