customers photo

On the other hand, befriending your customers and getting to know them personally lets you experience a hard truth: there are some customers who are simply more trouble than they are worth. There are some customers who will not be satisfied regardless of how much you bend over backwards to help them. They make unrealistic demands for what they are paying. They constantly ask for changes and new features to your product. They think they deserve a discount just because they asked for one. They want a refund when your service has the slightest hiccup. They waste your time with an endless stream of questions and complaints. Well, your customers have the right to stop paying you and quit doing business with you at any time and I think it is okay for you to have the same right. 

I learned this lesson while working for a former employer as a web developer. Most of our projects went relatively smoothly, but every now and then we had a customer who was off the wall. There was one customer in particular who insisted on having multiple meetings per week while he worked on his project. He would frequently make requests to move an image 1 pixel to the left or make very slight color changes to his website that no one would notice but him. We would receive multiple emails from him each day. When he asked for a custom events module for his website which was not in his proposal, I politely told him that we could do it but that it would likely cost extra. He pounded his fist on the table and yelled, “%$%& it! I paid for a custom events calendar, I WANT CUSTOM EVENTS!” During the final week before his website launched, he actually wanted to work out of our office so that he could direct us as we finished his project. We probably ended up putting twice as many hours into the project than we should have because of the client’s constant change requests and unusual demands. I do not know if the company ended up making money off the deal, but I could have certainly done without having him as a client. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. This is not to say that you should see your customers as the enemy or a source of contempt. The vast majority of your customers will be happy to give you money for the value that you provide them. They may run into an issue every now and then and need help fixing something and you should politely and happily take care of their issues. Having great customer service is one of the best ways to keep customers around for a long time. Zappos built a multi-million dollar e-commerce business by having a legendary customer service department. You should do everything you reasonably can for your customers to make sure they are happy with your service. That being said, there are just some people who will not be happy no matter what you do and it is okay to decide to stop doing business with them. 

Identifying a Problem Customer 

You will recognize your problem customer fairly quickly. You already know who they are based on how many times they have called or emailed you with their problems. They are more than likely on one of your lower payment tiers. They ask for things that are not included with your product or service. They regularly ask for discounts and refunds. They send you long winded emails asking for help or making requests. They may attack you personally. They often complain and do not seem to be terribly concerned with whether or not their problem actually gets fixed. 

If you can identify problem customers before they become your customers, you can save yourself time and troubles later on. When you talk to a prospective customer, there are several warning signs that will help you identify whether or not they could be more trouble than they are worth. Potential problem customers may ask you to do a smaller, significantly discounted project, or even free work in exchange for a potentially bigger project down the road. If they are not willing to pay your market rate on the first project, they will not want to pay your market rate on any future projects either. More than likely, any promises of a bigger and more lucrative project down the road will not pan out. Potential problem customers will ask you an endless series of questions about your company’s products and services. They may try to convince you how great a deal working with them would be, despite the fact that they are nameless online. They may try to get you to sign long-form non-disclosure agreements or other agreements before signing up for your product or service. 

Dealing with Problem Customers 

The best way to deal with potential problem customers is to not cater to all of their demands. You should certainly provide a reasonable effort to answer their questions as you would any potential customer, but you should not spend several hours trying to answer their questions, sign any legal papers they put in front of you, or give them a significant discount just because they asked for one, unless they bring you a massive amount of business and you decide that it is worth it. If they send you a long winded email, answer it briefly and do not waste your time on them. As soon as the potential problem customer figures out that they cannot push you around, they will probably wander off and waste someone else’s time. If they do not leave on their own, it is okay to send them a polite message and say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think we’re going to be a good fit for you or be able to meet your needs. You may want to check out X, Y, or Z company that may be able to offer what you’re looking for.” 

Refund Liberally 

Sometimes you will not be able to identify a problem customer until they have already paid you. With the first few issues that they have, you should give the customer the benefit of the doubt, but after awhile it will be hard to continue dealing with your problem customer. It is okay to say no to their unreasonable demands. Tell them politely that their extra or unusual requests are not part of the product or service that you offer. If they continue to complain, you can apologize and offer a refund, saying, “I’m sorry we will not be able to accommodate your request. If you would like, we can cancel your order and refund your payment.” More often than not, they will take the offer of the refund and go on their way. Give yourself permission to walk away from that problem customer. You will spend much more time and money than they originally paid you trying to keep them happy. You are better off giving them their money back and sending them on their way. 

Action Steps: 

  • Do not bend over backwards for people who have not committed to hiring you yet.
  • Give yourself permission to let problem customers go.
  • Liberally and politely offer refunds to problem customers and be done with them.