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6 signs you’re dealing with a difficult customer (and how to handle them)

Entrepreneurship · 10/10/18 11:39 · Ella-Roosa Koivupuro

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Sooner or later, every entrepreneur comes into contact with them: customers whose difficult and irrational behavior can leave you wondering why you went into business in the first place. They flood you with angry emails, expect you to be reachable 24/7, and always, always know better than you. They demand your full attention and demand, quite literally, the world.

The species in question is, of course, the difficult customer.

As a new entrepreneur, you’re happy to land any job or project, regardless of where it’s coming from. After all, customers probably aren’t knocking down your door, especially in the beginning. Despite the need to secure new jobs, it’s always important to select your customers carefully.

At worst, a bad customer can take up a lot of your time and energy – energy that you could put to much better use in another project.

Here are a few warning signs that you might have a difficult customer on your hands. If you can identify them right away, you might be able to react quickly or, if none of the proposed measures help, reject the project altogether.


1. The customer doesn’t want to pay for anything

Does the customer talk about money from the very beginning? Are they trying to bargain the price down at the first call, even before you’ve discussed the project scope and objectives? Or maybe they offer you a profit share instead of a payment?

If the customer is too focused on money, it can be a sign that they’re just looking for a cheap bargain or aren’t serious about the project. Unfortunately, customers in the “miser” category  are often the ones who have a poor payment history. Additionally, cheap customers aren’t likely to value your work.

What can you do? Don’t give in too easily. Stand confidently behind your offer and your prices. Emphasize the added value you bring and the benefits the customer receives when they choose to work with you.

Remember: if the customer doesn’t recognize your value, they probably aren’t worth much as a customer.


2. The customer is rude

Is the customer rude in the first meeting? Depending on the situation, you might have to decide if the collaboration is worth it at all. Maybe it’s just that particular person who is difficult to deal with, but your contact person for the project is a friendly assistant or project manager.

What can you do? If the project seems otherwise legitimate, you can kindly point out that a collaborative approach makes working together more productive and enjoyable. Be confident and don’t let yourself be intimidated by unfriendly manners.

And if you feel really uncomfortable from the start, sometimes it makes sense to skip the job altogether. A lack of mutual respect and trust can have a negative impact on the whole project. If necessary, save the stress, and focus your energy on other projects.


3. The customer doesn’t respect your time

Did the customer repeatedly miss or postpone the first meeting, but still expects you to be flexible in finding a new meeting time?

What can you do? Tell the customer in a friendly but determined manner that you can only work effectively and punctually if they adhere to the set deadlines and schedules. You respect your customer’s time and expect them to do so in return.

In case of a particularly intrusive customer, you can point out your office hours and possibly mention them in the contract. Explain to the customer when you are available and how quickly they can expect to hear back from you.


4. The customer delays the project

The customer is very difficult to reach, they take ages to get back to you and they deliver promised material only after multiple reminders.

If the customer is otherwise friendly and keenly interested in driving the project forward, they are likely just overburdened or poorly organised.

What can you do? Tell the customer that you are putting the project on hold until they deliver the necessary materials or provide feedback as agreed. Point out that delays can affect the price. If you have to reschedule your work or appointments due to the customer’s negligence, it will show on the bill.

Another effective "means of pressure" is using interim price calculations after certain stages of the project have been reached. On the one hand, you minimize your own risk, and on the other hand, most customers suddenly feel the urgency when they see the price estimations. "Now I have already spent X amount of euros, so the project should be ready soon," is what people tend to think after seeing interim calculations.


5. The customer is a bit chaotic

There are customers who don’t really know what they want or just don’t have a plan. You may be an inexperienced entrepreneur yourself and cannot properly estimate the scope of the project. This category often includes customers who are working on their passion projects but have little actual entrepreneurial experience.

What can you do? If you notice that the customer underestimates the workload or has completely unrealistic expectations, you should be upfront about potential issues. Explain to them which deadlines and costs are realistic, and be sure to communicate other requirements necessary to completing the job. Also, be clear about the results the customer can expect and what expectations may be out of scope.

Offering viable solutions to your customers should be one of your top priorities. However, being honest and realistic with your customers can save a lot of trouble and unnecessary frustration.


6. The customer is a "know-it-all"

A particularly trying customer type is the “know-it-all”. They want to control everything, interfere with every step and always have the last word.

What can you do? For such customers, it is important to convince them from the very beginning that the project is in good hands. For example, show the customer previous projects that you have completed successfully.

If you decide to work with the customer, it's worth defining exact project goals and stages early on, and have the customer check the results as you reach the interim objectives. The communication should always be in writing.


Demanding customers are not always bad customers

Not all customers who are demanding are automatically bad customers. Just because a potential customer expects a lot from you or has high quality standards shouldn't scare you off immediately. A challenge is always a possibility to grow and develop as an entrepreneur.

It’s important that you always ensure transparency and a clear project flow. When you take the right protective measures, you make sure the project gets done professionally, even with a difficult customer. Stay confident and communicate clearly how you envision the collaboration to go.

An interesting and lucrative project can turn into a real nightmare if the customer is unreliable, becomes offensive or doesn’t pay their bill. Trust your gut – if your instincts are telling you that this might not be a good fit for you, it may be better to decline the job. One of your most important qualities as an entrepreneur is to know when to say “no, thank you”.

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