How to Talk to a Tough Customer - Management
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How to Talk to a Tough Customer

CED Magazine, December 2006

Article Date: 12-01-2006
Copyright (C) 2006 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

Tried and true ways to keep their business and your sanity.

Oh, oh, here it comes — the flushed face, the rapid breathing, the clenched teeth. You’ve learned how to spot tough customers even before they jab a finger in your face and shout “&#! &((%@# #&#&%!!!”


Do you remember the Perato Principle? That’s the one that tells you 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your customers. That’s true for some businesses. What’s true for all businesses is the Perato Principle of Tough Customers: 80 percent of your customer headaches come from 20 percent of your customers.


There is bad news and good news enshrined in this axiom. The bad news is you must deal effectively with that tough 20 percent if you don’t want to jeopardize your bottom line. If you are not skillful with these titans, they’ll put their well-exercised vocal chords to work bad mouthing you throughout the community. You’ll lose their future patronage which, while your blood is boiling and your body is recoiling from their insults, might appear as a blessing. The problem is, they take a big bite out of your business as they tell torrid tales of how badly you treated them.


The good news is that since the number of tough customers is small, you can learn tried and true ways to keep their business, their friends’ business, and your sanity.

Emotional Intelligence

     Dan Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence,” defines emotional intelligence as “knowing and managing one’s emotions, empathizing with others, and handling relationships effectively.” He offers this five-step plan for tackling tough customers:

  • Handle your own emotional reaction. If you don’t get upset; you can deal calmly and clearly with them. Stop, take a few deep breaths, count to 100 — whatever works for you.
  • When you have your anger in check, tune in to that tough customer. Really listen and try to figure out why this customer has become abusive, complaining, and overly finicky. Try to understand their perspective.
  • Then, even if you have the answer or solution immediately, wait. Encourage the customer to talk. Ask questions in a sympathetic tone of voice until you fully understand the situation.
  • The fourth step is to sympathize with the customer. Say something like, “No wonder you’re upset.”
  • And finally, see if you can help. Maybe you can solve the problem, and maybe you can’t. If you can, great. If you can’t, be apologetic and sympathetic. Often all people want is to be heard, understood, and sympathized wish. That’s why they’re acting so tough.
Street Fighter Marketing


But, what if you’re absent when the customer comes charging through your door? Are your employees prepared to handle that customer?


When an insufferable customer comes through the door yelling or swearing, unprepared employees run for cover or make amateur attempts to fight back.


To prepare your employees, Jeff Slutsky, president of Street Fighter Marketing suggests role-playing. Managers should go through “war games” with their employees.


“Have your employees practice staying cool and calm while another employee plays the role of the tough customer,” says Slutsky. “Let him scream and yell to his heart’s content. Beyond being excellent preparation for staying calm in the face of a mad customer, its fun and it creates solidarity among employees.

            “If you repeat the training enough, your employees are less likely to get caught off their emotional guard when the real tough customer attacks them.”

Excerpted from the December 2006 issue of Construction Equipment Distribution. For the complete article, contact Jenny Choe.
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Article Categories:  Customers/Contractors  »  Management