Required Reading: Avoid Dealing with Difficult Customers

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It’s a truism in business that the customer is always right. But in their new book, Dealing with Difficult Customers, authors Noah Fleming and Shawn Veltman argue that this shouldn’t always be the case, and that there are times when it is perfectly fine to “fire” the customer. Associate Editor Oren Smilansky caught up with Fleming to learn how companies can avoid doing business with problematic customers.

CRM magazine: What was the impetus for this book? 

Noah Fleming: There’s an interesting twist to the book: It’s not really about dealing with difficult customers. The majority of it is about asking what we’re doing in our business that’s making [customers] frazzled, upset, or angry. The book is really about what can we do to improve, to avoid difficult customers in the first place.

How do companies avoid attracting bad customers? 

A lot of businesses are willing to take in anybody and everybody. If you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get cash from anybody, your chances of having great relationships with customers are pretty diminished. It’s better to focus on the right people. This comes down to sort of Sales and Marketing 101: Know your customer. And, more importantly, know the customers you’re trying to attract, that make the most sense for your business, and go after them. 

What companies have been successful with this approach?

Southwest Airlines has been very good at attracting the type of customer that makes sense for them, and that means a customer who’s willing to wait in line with everybody. There’s no sort of class segmentation; it’s first come, first serve, and they’re really good at setting clear expectations of who they are. If you want a first-class, luxury travel experience, go elsewhere, because you’re not going to get it there. It’s about understanding the expectations gap and understanding what you’ve promised and what you’re delivering, and making sure that you can. 

In the book you assert that in fact the customer isn't always right. Can you elaborate? 

The customer is not always right, but that’s something that a lot of businesses believe. For example, they believe that the way of Zappos, of treating every customer complaint as if it is accurate and true, is valid, so they try to follow that model. But that model works for Zappos because it’s a billion-dollar company. It doesn’t work for everybody else, and so we need to understand that some customers will be very hard to please; some customers are insatiable; and some customers are just complainers. 

How can companies figure out if a customer is truly wrong? 

Look for patterns. One of the things we talk about in the book is this practice of internal benchmarking. If you don’t know, for example, the 10 most common complaints or criticisms your company has had in the past six months, then it’s very hard to ask yourself, “Is the customer really right, or is the customer incredibly wrong?” But if you start to track this stuff, you start to see, “Hey, we made this mistake 10 times in the past 60 days; what can we do about this?” Simply ask if you are doing things to create these feelings with customers. I think in the case of United Airlines and David Dao [the passenger who was forcibly removed from a flight in April 2017 after he was randomly bumped to make room for United employees], for example, he probably should have gotten off the plane. But did he deserve to get beaten and bloodied to a pulp? Absolutely not. 

Can CRM technology help people figure out when it is appropriate to fire a customer? 

CRM can be a great tool, for example, to watch how many issues you have with a customer. So whether it’s issues to reduce pricing; whether it’s requests for discounts—a lot of companies keep history on this stuff. I talked about some of them in my first book, Evergreen. Amazon was firing customers who were obsessively returning products. They were actually telling them, “Thank you for ordering with us, but, quite frankly, your account has been shut down and you’re no longer able to order with Amazon.” Amazon can get away with this. Others will say, “It’s a lot harder for me.” But the question is, is it really? Or is this customer who’s causing you grief diminishing the experience for other customers?

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