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How to Deal with Difficult Customers: The Victim, the Nitpicker, the Groundskeeper, and the Power Tripper

Following a “how to deal with difficult customers” script is a great way to save yourself the time and energy of treating people like individuals. In fact, by simply researching steps on how to react to challenging clients, you’ll be able to take away the “difficult” label immediately!

…Followed by the “customer” one.

But if you’re looking to form a productive working relationship with customers* who are consistently unsatisfied with your products and services, there are ways to start assembling their frustrating actions into larger behavior patterns.

*Much of this can also be applied to relationships with colleagues, but there is generally a chain of command that makes resolving conflicts a bit easier.

Two primary factors intersect to create four types of “bad” customers:

  • Informed vs. uninformed (How much does the customer know about what you do and the services you provide?)
  • Confrontational vs. nonconfrontational (How willing is the customer to be direct with you?)

Once you categorize these behaviors, you can then:

  • Identify sources of the behavior
  • Implement strategies to prevent conflict
  • Resolve differences

Difficult Customer Matrix

Four Challenging Behavior Types

Uninformed and nonconfrontational: The Victim

Difficult Customer: Victim

Oh, my goodness! Won't someone help little ol' me?

Behavior:

  • Passive aggression: “If I had had these proofs weeks ago, maybe we wouldn’t be cutting it so close on the ship date.”
  • Claims ignorance: “You didn’t tell me that.”
  • Makes deferential remarks if she feels cornered: “You’re the expert here.”

Possible underlying reasons for the behavior:

  • She has no idea what she wants and looks to you to solve her problem in a much broader sense than your services offer.
  • She doesn’t know what her superiors want and is too embarrassed/proud to ask.
  • She selected the wrong person/company to solve her problem, and instead of being upfront about the mismatch, she avoids revisiting the original agreement.

Nip it in the bud:

  • Make it clear that you document all interactions. It’s difficult to claim ignorance when there are records. Ask for confirmation of receipt on all important messages.
  • Ask for clear outlines of expectations from day one. This will make her accountable.
  • Be direct. Passive aggressive behaviors are unsuccessful when one partner states the subtext: “I’m hearing that you’re disappointed in the time frame of service delivery. We agreed on the 14th, but you would have preferred the 9th. Is that right?”

End the B.S.:

  • Present documentation of communication. If she says she never received certain information, tell her how and when she did receive it.
  • In a worst case scenario, suggest you’re not the right person for the job. You may lose the client, but the possibility of report back to her superiors that you walked off the job due to a communication breakdown could help cut the nonsense.

Informed and nonconfrontational: The Nitpicker

Difficult Customer: Nitpicker

This easel is far too "woody." Do you have anything else you can offer me?

Behavior:

  • Delivers backhanded compliments: “This version is good considering what little experience you have.”
  • Constantly nitpicking: “A due date of the 15th meant the project needed to be done BY the 15th, which means I expected it ON the 14th.”
  • Uses vague language: “We need enhance the overall aesthetic quality for a contemporary feel that enhances and revitalizes the brand’s synergy.”

Possible underlying reasons for the behavior:

  • He knows what he wants but feels uncomfortable with being direct.
  • He resents that the task was outsourced rather than given to him.
  • He cannot afford services as quoted but thinks he can nickel and dime you down if he finds minor mistakes.

Nip it in the bud:

  • Ask for his input from the beginning. As someone who has knowledge in the field, he will feel valued and less likely to nitpick if he participates.
  • Have him make approvals on proofs based on several changes, not each individual draft. Ask for overall feedback with each version.
  • Respond positively to any constructive criticism with praise for being direct and specific commentary on how his input was helpful.

End the B.S.:

  • If his constant revisions are taking up time and energy that you could be using on new assignments, offer a small discount if the project can be done by a certain deadline.

Uninformed and confrontational: The Groundskeeper

Difficult Customer: Groundskeeper

My payment is due today? That can't be right! Well, what about your air freshener, huh? How am I supposed to work under these conditions?!

Behavior:

  • He responds to you pointing out inconsistencies by moving the goalposts. For example, if he objects to a price increase and you point out that what he wants is an add-on service, he will redirect the argument to the quality of the work.
  • He becomes defensive when you question his experience in your field.

Possible underlying reasons for the behavior:

  • He doesn’t know what he’s talking about but still wants to be considered on your level.
  • He may be insecure or feel insulted that someone else is doing the project.
  • He used to perform your job, but his insufficient performance caused the task to be outsourced.

Nip it in the bud:

  • When you suspect he’s inventing facts on the spot or even outright lying, ask for a source (with appearance of wanting to learn more rather than as an outright accusation).
  • Present your own sources/facts with your argument. Backing up your information with an authority leaves less wiggle room for argument without questioning that authority.

End the B.S.:

  • State “agenda” for consultation meetings before starting to prevent getting sidetracked onto other topics.
  • Ask a lot of questions. Hold him to the same scrutiny to which he holds you in order to stay on equal footing.

Informed and confrontational: The Power Tripper

Difficult Customer: Power Tripper

Don't even make me bring out my cactus bat.

Behavior:

  • She tries taking over project, completing tasks you were assigned to do.
  • She dismisses or undermines your ideas in favor of her own.
  • She takes credit for good ideas.

Possible underlying reasons for the behavior:

  • She has done or wants to do what you’ve been hired to do.
  • She is insecure about her own work and wants to ride the coattails of your quality work.
  • She believes the quality of your work reflects on her, and she wants to control her reputation by taking over.

Nip it in the bud:

  • If the assignment is set up as a partnership, specify each person’s role in the tasks.
  • Calm insecurity by complimenting work that is genuinely hers alone. Also, acknowledge when she does point out your success or shares credit appropriately.
  • Pick your battles; if you believe her taking credit will affect your reputation, be direct. If she only seems concerned with impressing you, let it go. You both know who contributed what.

End the B.S.:

  • Ask questions: “What do you want me to do? How can I help?” These questions give her power as well as provide you with more concrete instructions.

Overall Strategies

  • Give concrete expectations, deadlines, and quotes. If you don’t honor your end – turning in something a day or two late, for example – the client will hold onto that as leverage later.
  • Ask questions. Lots of them. And not just for the sake of asking questions to falsely appeared interested or eat away at consult time. Find out not only what tasks you’re completing but also for what purpose and to what audience. If you get stuck on a project, those answers will become an important touchstone.
  • Document EVERYTHING. Try to get everything in writing, and record phone calls (but make sure you check your state laws on required consent).

Your Experience?

What do you think of these categories? Do the strategies make sense associated with each type? Have you met anyone who clearly falls into a single category? What other factors play into difficult business relationships?

Until next time, keep expanding your brand!



Jana Quinn

An old ‘G’ that’s been working for QLP since it was in Bret’s basement – Jana has been writing since she made up a story about a Jana-Tiger that liked rocky road ice cream and got straight A’s. She enjoys writing about marketing and pop culture, posting a ‘Die Hard’ article as often as she’s allowed. She is inspired by the articles at Cracked and frequently wears a Snuggie in the office. You can also connect with Jana on Google+.

Comments

  1. Vern-Matic

    Nice post Jana, the only questions I have are where can I get a pair of shorts that ride that high, that the Groundskeeper is wearing? And you wouldn’t happen to have the phone number to the Power Tripper?

  2. amy

    Have you ever worked retail before, Jana? I ran into these types of customers all the time, but never thought to categorize them. Great post!

    I especially loved your captions on the pictures, “Don’t even make me bring out my cactus bat!” hahahahaha

    • Amanda

      I agree Amy! Working in retail or fast food gets you familiar with these types of customers real quick! And it is not fun…..

      Jana you laid out some awesome ways to handle these tough situations here, great job! =)

    • Jana Quinn

      Haha, how could you tell, Amy? ;-)

      Although everyone is a beautiful little snowflake, there’s no denying there are patterns. Identifying some patterns have made people easier to start dealing with.

  3. JPorretto

    I’d say I’m a nitpicker, but without the condescension…. except with those scripted question customer service experiences – i.e. Comcast.

    Hi my Cable box is broken, it won’t even turn on.
    -Can you get to the guide?
    No, it’s broken.
    -What color is the screen?
    BLACK. Because it’s broken.
    -Is it on?
    No. Broken thing no turn on because broken.
    -Is it plugged in?
    Now I have to kill you…

    • Amanda

      hahahaha Jeff. That is too hilarious! Well done.

    • Jana Quinn

      Yeah, it drives me a little nuts to reach a human being who functions like a voice recognition program. However, I wonder how many people DON’T think to check if the thing is plugged in and only do so when prompted to. Oh, to be a fly on the wall…

  4. Rachel

    Like Amy, I can definitely see these categories applying to the customers I used to deal with in retail. The Groundskeeper is a category that can be especially frustrating, I think. But you give great suggestions about ways to address that type of customer, and the other types too. It seems like much of what this boils down to is communication–we all need to be better about communicating our own needs and listening to the needs of others. Great post, Jana!

  5. Jill Tooley

    I’d have to say that Nitpickers have played the biggest role in my customer service experiences through the years. “This easel is far too woody” is a humorous tidbit and it took me back to some of my interactions with this customer group. When I worked for a bank, people would complain about everything from the temperature of the building to the bill increments available in the ATMs. My favorite was: “Why doesn’t your ATM dispense $100 bills?”, followed by a demand for compensation for his “trouble” (which consisted of him having to pull up to a different drive-through window to get smaller bills). What exactly was I supposed to do in that situation? I couldn’t very well give him a free sample of money, nor did I feel sympathetic to his situation. He was asking me to do something that I clearly couldn’t do, and as a result I felt trapped. But, in line with your analysis, I ended up telling him that his feedback was valuable and that I’d pass it on to my superior, which seemed to appease him. Even though my supervisor didn’t see the benefit of $100 bills in an ATM either, at least I passed on the message!

    This is a fantastic post that dives into the depths of those tricky customer behaviors – thanks for the wealth of information. :)

  6. Jen

    I would have to say while working in retail, I think I ran across Victims the most. I once had a woman ask for a service the store couldn’t provide for her. She started to cry when I told her we didn’t provide that particular service. I’m sure she wanted me to feel sympathy for her because she claimed she didn’t know anyone who could help her. I gave her some suggestions, like maybe she could hire a contractor to fix her problem or ask a neighbor for help. I don’t know what she ended up doing about her situation, but that day she left very upset. I almost felt sad for her…almost.

    Nice blog post Jana, it really brought back some memories.

  7. Kyle

    Excellent post, Jana. The picture and captions were great. I’m not an expert in customer service by any means, but these categories you’ve described seem spot on!

  8. Mary

    I am so glad that I don’t work in retail anymore. Life is much easier. Not only do you have to put up with unreasonable people but you have to be nice to them. I’m past nice!

  9. Lauren G.

    Great post! I think that somewhere down the line, we’ve all worked with or helped people in these categories. I, like Jill, worked at the bank. Still do, just a different bank. I have lots of customers who just feel as if I’m personally out to get them, when that’s not the case at all! I try to help them and get around “the man” as much as possible. There’s always the few sticklers, but I try my hardest to better the situation for them. I definitely have a good handful of every type of customer from all these categories. Hopefully none of my customers comes in with a cactus bat….hahaah! :)

  10. Joseph Giorgi

    Love the categorization, Jana! I’m usually a pretty organized guy myself, and I admire anyone’s ability to sort things out like this — especially personality types.

    For some reason, your graph/matrix of “bad” customer types reminded me of the following:

    http://www.theshiznit.co.uk/media/NewsJan2011/cage-matrix-final-5.jpg

    :)

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