Customers are always right—or are they? As business owners, we try to go above and beyond to provide the best possible experience and customer service to our clients. However, there are times that, despite our best efforts, we simply can’t resolve the situation in a manner that’s satisfactory to both parties.
Three business owners—Patrick Barnhill, founder of SpecialistID in Miami, Florida; Tim Maliyil, CEO of AlertBoot in Las Vegas, Nevada; and Mona Patel, CEO of Motivate Design in New York City—sound off on how they’ve handled unreasonable or impossible customer service situations.
Tell us about a time when a customer made an unreasonable demand. How did you handle it?
Patrick Barnhill: It seems that unreasonable demands have become the norm these days. Amazon’s two-day Prime shipping and lots of other factors have totally distorted most shoppers’ perception of real costs for small businesses fulfilling orders.
Luckily, a small percentage of demands are unreasonable and we are able to write them off as a cost of doing business and staying competitive. If it will cost us less than $100, my staff is trained to “Do the right thing” by the customer. The right thing is making them happy even if it’s a loss for us. If it is over that amount, it will get special attention and may require asking the customer if they can meet us somewhere in the middle.
Tim Maliyil: Being in the software business, we often have to balance requests that would genuinely improve the software and requests that are overly specific to a particular customer’s needs. We try to educate the customer about the necessary engineering process involved in fulfilling a request, and we help them understand the cost to the company. Reasonable customers tend to understand why something gets rejected, but the unreasonable ones will still put up a fight.
As a business owner, you have to make sure that you take care of your business, your people and your standards. If a client is asking you to compromise any of those, walk away. The juice is not worth the squeeze.
—Mona Patel, CEO, Motivate Design
Mona Patel: Last year, we worked with a client on a design SWAT project in which we were tasked with branding a new kind of conference. The project was scoped, staffed and started within a few days, and our designers were excited to get to work. These SWAT projects are designed for quick turnaround: two weeks, two rounds of iteration and final delivery of branding materials—icons, fonts, color palettes, etc. In this case, the client asked for more rounds of iteration, which required more hours. Our designers wanted to please the client while delivering their best work, but we had a dedicated timeline.
When the partnership began to feel abusive, I stepped in. I called the client with scope in hand to clearly and directly communicate what we promised, how we over-delivered and how he overstepped. I presented him with three solutions: take the deliverables as is: no added iterations, no added time, no added budget; two more rounds of iterations for added time and budget; [or] a working session with the designers to address all issues and hand off the deliverables at the end of the session, billed at their hourly rate for three hours. He went with option #3 and launched a successful conference. We have worked together ever since.
Why is it important to set limits for customers?
Maliyil: As in other parts of life, in business you have to set limits or people will walk all over you. Far beyond a product, service or technology, a business is made of up people, and a leader must properly set expectations with customers so their teammates are protected from customers taking things too far. And yes, I once made the rookie mistake of trying to please all my customers only to waste time and money and put undue stress on my staff.
Patel: Setting limits for your customers is important because it demonstrates your standards, to you as well as your client. For example, as a designer, working crazy hours outside of scope to meet deadlines or going against your design decisions at a customer’s request compromises your value of your time, work and talent. I wouldn’t hire anyone who didn’t feel like they were worth exactly what they were asking for. Would you?
Barnhill: I will add that hard-limit policies sometimes defy logic and add to frustration in customer service. So, we tend to have a moving limit based on the individual situation.
When saying no, how do you keep the situation from spiraling out of control?
Patel: Give options. By providing three or four possible solutions, you are showing the client that you value the relationship enough to put in effort toward fixing it. Coming to the conversation with these plans also shows strategic problem solving.
Barnhill: There are lots of ways to lessen the negative impact when saying no, such as asking the customer if another option would be okay.
However, with the way things are online, if you say no and truly offend [or] upset the customer, there is really no way to control it. An angry customer can and will go to every social media platform, review site and forum, and let everyone know how upset they are and how much they do not like you and your company.
The good news: Some bad reviews from seemingly crazy customers can actually make you look better—and if you have a loyal following, your fans will come to your defense!
Maliyil: If you take the time to educate customers about the challenges of delivering what they want, there will usually be some sort of acceptance or compromise among the reasonable ones. We’ve had many instances where a customer would pay extra for a special request, and saying no led to more revenue and a happier customer in the end.
If a business owner found herself in an impossible customer service situation, what’s your best advice?
Barnhill: Look at the cost of fixing impossible customer situations as a percent of revenue rather than as a percent of that transaction. If it’s not too crazy when you look at the big picture, converting haters into raving fans has some long-term benefits that outweigh the costs almost every time.
Maliyil: If your explanations fail, then it may be in everyone’s best interest to simply part ways. A bad customer can end up costing you quite a bit in terms of lost productivity and employee morale.
Patel: As a business owner, you have to make sure that you take care of your business, your people and your standards. If a client is asking you to compromise any of those, walk away. The juice is not worth the squeeze.