Seven signs of a difficult customer
We’ve all been there... the customer that makes life so difficult you wonder why you went into business in the first place. Here’s how to spot them early and take steps to turn things around.
If you have been in business for a while, you’ve probably had to deal with a difficult customer that refuses to pay, drags the job out into unprofitability, or keeps you up at night because of the way they behave and treat you personally.
Every trade or construction business will deal with difficult clients at some point in time. The good news is, there are several red flags that you can look for in the early stages. Spotting one or more may make you reconsider the project, or charging a premium to allow for the hassle factor.
1. Extreme price haggling
With big-ticket items, potential customers are unlikely to seek out only one price when making a purchasing decision, but it may be worthwhile asking straight up how many other businesses will be competing for the job at hand. More than two may indicate you have a cost-focused shopper on your hands. When price is the primary concern for a client, you’ll probably encounter a degree of haggling right from the start. This customer is not afraid to remind you constantly that plenty of other companies would take this job at a cheaper rate.
Quibbling over price at the very start usually means quibbling over price at the very end. If you’re up for the constant negotiation, then that’s okay. But, it’s also okay to understand some clients will recognise the value in the service that you offer, appreciate it and be prepared to pay the asking price — without the haggling.
2. Future work enticement
This category of customer talks a great deal. Before you’re even into it, they’ll present you with the promise of more work... on the proviso that everything goes well. You can probably take this enticement with a grain of salt. This customer tries to butter you up with the promise of more work, generally hoping that you’ll cave in and provide a discount on job number one.
It is far better to approach each job as a standalone project, independent of anything else that may (or may not) eventuate. It’s also easy not to get caught out — just price each project individually and tell the client that, while you would really appreciate the additional work if it comes to fruition, you preference is to focus on one project at a time. As a potential customer, they can’t really fault you for concentrating on the matter at hand.
3. Disorganisation and delays
While not every disorganised person is a potentially difficult customer, the one who turns up late to every meeting, is missing vital information and takes forever to respond with answers or decisions will inevitably be a drain on your resources. Unless this person can dramatically change their behaviour and personality traits, it may be a sign of things to come and could cost you hours (if not days) in lost profit.
4. Unrealistic time expectations
From project commencement, this customer expects you to drop everything for them. They will contact you 24 hours a day, seven days a week over the most minor detail and assume you will respond... quickly. Everything is seen as an emergency, and if it’s happening in the early stages of negotiation, you can imagine what the future will bring. A reasonable customer understands that you have other projects in the pipeline and that, as a professional, you can manage that workload effectively.
5. Badmouthing other trades
As the adage goes, “what Peter says about Paul says a lot about Peter”, and it’s usually not pretty. If your customer complains and moans about other trades, it’s highly likely that you will be thrown into that mix at some point. This is pretty poor behaviour and, as a minimum, you should be be cautious when dealing with customers like this. Better yet, avoid them like the plague. They may have had an unfortunate experience with another trade but, if they’re still actively telling other people, the situation was probably never resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. Not a good sign, but probably a good indication of character.
6. A disinclination to document
This one never fails to amaze. A work agreement or contract that clarifies the understanding and expectations of both parties is a no-brainer, for both your protection and your client’s. This should outline how variations will be handled, payment details, time frames and what will happen in the event of delays. If you have a customer that is not prepared to sign anything from the start, or is unwilling to put variations in writing, then any lack of action encountered will probably backfire badly. Plenty of trades have lost out or been driven to bankruptcy over a lack of documentation and unsigned agreements.
7. That feeling in your gut
Trust your intuition. Sometimes the job looks right on paper — it’s in your wheelhouse and you’ve got capacity to take it on — but you’ve got a feeling things are going to take a difficult turn with a particular customer. Go with that feeling. If you are uncomfortable about a job, or the individual requesting it, turn it down with no regrets. You cannot lose money on the jobs you do not take.
Unfortunately, many small business owners are still inclined to contend with difficult customers, taking a series of small hits before the hard lessons are learned. By identifying some of the early warning signs, you can hopefully spot these customers and avoid some of the more expensive outcomes.
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