Is the Customer Always Right? What to Do When Customers Behave Badly

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Call centers across the world are set up to address customers’ concerns. We are a world focused on customers — mostly striving to give them a great experience or opportunities to talk to us or return products if they’re not completely satisfied. The customer is king … he is always right … or is he?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the number of dedicated customer service representatives in 2014 at over 2.5 million. Add in all the other occupations dedicated to customers — salespeople, waiters, retail staff, receptionists, etc. We are a world focused on customers.

A salesperson I worked with a few years ago had an especially challenging client. His frequent calls to check on the status of his ongoing project included intense questioning, cursing, and demands for things outside the scope of his contract. The situation escalated quickly and after one especially stressful conversation, she was in tears. We discussed the interaction and agreed that I would become the point of contact for this account. I called the man to hear him out and almost before I finished giving him my name, his tirade began. There was no way to address his concerns or work toward a solution, because he wouldn’t allow me to speak … at all. The call ended with me talking over him to say that when he was able to discuss the situation without cursing and shouting, I’d be happy to help find a solution. I was never sure if he heard me … his company replaced him about two weeks later, giving us a new point of contact.

Most of us have experienced instances like this, where the customer is unreasonable and has crossed a line, where a complainer isn’t just shedding light on a defect or problem, but where they’re truly taking advantage or bullying — where the customer is mistreating you or an employee. Where is the line and what do you do when you reach it?

The American Management Association segments several types of customers, among them one they call the “detrimental” customer. Here’s a full list:

  1. The reluctant customer is resistant to change. When your company introduces an innovation that will help create a better customer experience, reluctant customers don’t get on board. They don’t like changes to the product/service. They don’t embrace technology.
  2. The fickle customer has few loyalties. How do you keep a customer once you’ve won him or her over? The job of creating customer loyalty begins almost immediately after the customer buys. The fickle customer is the one you have to win over again and again.
  3. The angry customer
  4. The detrimental customer is a habitual merchandise returner … and has a never-ending list of complaints. These customers strain your employees and, sometimes, your service to other customers. Are they more bother than they’re worth?
  5. The keeper is your ideal customer. Identifying who these customers are can help target your marketing and customer service efforts.

Clearly all your customers have value. You need to find a way to work with the reluctant, the fickle and the angry customers. But when is the effort of dealing with a detrimental customer more than the customer is worth?

Following are three approaches when dealing with these customers.

  1. Practice good customer service first. Be polite and prompt. Smile and listen. If the customer is physically present, i.e., at a retail store, and is behaving badly, remember that other customers may be watching the interaction. According to research by Lily Lin published in the Journal of Consumer Research, customers are more willing to punish other shoppers who ignore the rules of good conduct …. In fact, they expect the person and the situation to be controlled. “Retailers can get part of the blame for their badly behaved customers.”
  2. “Have one employee who is trained to take difficult customers off the hands of junior employees who are inexperienced,” suggest Daniel Skarlicki of the Sauder School of Business. But remember, customers don’t like being shuffled between departments. So, all employees who interact with customers should be well trained in customer service, and this customer handoff should be the exception.
  3. Fire the customer. When the time spent on a customer starts to outweigh the value of that customer … or affects the service to other customers, it might be time to pull the plug. This is a drastic step and one that should not be taken lightly. It should be handled in a calm, straightforward manner and not in anger or frustration.

One truly bad customer can create a lot of drama and put the employees dealing with him or her in a very stressful situation. Customers do deserve outstanding service. They do deserve to be heard when they’re upset or angry. But if a customer habitually treats you and your employees disrespectfully, it might be time to say good-bye.

Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.