Managing customers from hell

Ask anyone who sells or serves customers about the buyer from hell and you’ll get a great example. Here are a few of my favorites.

* The client who asked me to submit a fake — and higher — bid so that his would win.

* The owner who asked to buy 20 minutes of my time at his place at 5:30 a.m.

* The entrepreneur who reneged on a commitment, then asked me to serve as a reference.

Clients from hell are not born, they are made — too often by those who serve them. Every customer deserves full service and occasional schmoozing, but there is a point of diminishing returns when more is not better, even for the customer.

Unfortunately, too many sales and service people feel secure by meeting their customers’ every want and need. Left unmanaged, customers stop asking for inches and demand miles. Instead, proactively manage your clients. Delight them within boundaries that are appropriate, constructive and mutually profitable.

Head off unreasonable requests

Know what your limits are and say no to customers whose demands are more than you agreed to. If you say no, mean no; often your clients will respect you more for doing so. If you overdeliver, make it clear that you are doing so and explain why. Customers cannot value what they don’t understand, and usually don’t value what they get for free.

Stay away from requests that will jeopardize your business or reputation. No customer is worth more than who you are and what you stand for.

Handle unreasonable requests with tact

Reread your agreement and decide, from your client’s perspective, whether you should comply. The benefit of the doubt goes to the client. If the demand is unacceptable, ask your client to explain the reason for the request, then propose a reasonable solution that includes a balanced commitment by both parties. Finally, agree on the solution or refuse the request.

Partnership status with customers or clients is earned through trust, empathy and consistency. If you build this together, only miscommunication or a lack of communication will put you at odds.

To ensure you never create a customer from hell, ask your suppliers what kind of a client you are. If they imply you are their client from hell, either you have nothing to complain about or you have got your own work cut out for you. Regardless, walk away. Life is too short to stay in bad relationships, particularly if you have helped create them. Andrew Birol ([email protected]) is president of Birol Growth Consulting, a Solon-based firm that helps grow businesses by growing their best and highest uses. Reach him at (440) 349-1970 or at