There’s no small-business advice older than the maxim, “the customer is always right.” That’s often the case, of course, but sometimes it isn’t. In fact, sometimes the customer is so wrong or such a bad fit that you’re better off saying goodbye, says Frances Kweller, founder of Kweller Prep, a New York tutoring service. “You need to shelter your business from bad customers. In the long run, it will save you money and aggravation,” she says. Kweller’s advice is especially pertinent for service businesses that require more than a friendly face at the cash register to develop a winning relationship with customers.
Firing a customer is obviously a last resort. Kweller offers a few strategies that will help you deal with difficult clients and ultimately ending the relationship if necessary.
Call the Customer
When you know a customer is unhappy, don’t be afraid to call that person directly. Don’t delegate that responsibility. Find out what the issue is and listen to all of the customer’s issues or complaints. Take good notes, and be sure to address the problem. If you can’t settle things on the phone immediately tell the customer when to expect a second call from you. Once you set the deadline you’ve got to stick to it. No excuses!
Don’t Be Defensive
After you’ve let the customer speak, there’s no point in snapping back to defend your business. If customers are are unhappy, they are not likely going to be interested in your side of the story anyway. If you don’t have the resources to help her directly, help her find someone else.
Offer Free Services or a Refund
There’s no reason not to provide a refund or a free service in order to smooth things over. If you have to issue ten refunds in your first year in business, so be it. It will cost you money in the short run, but pay a dividend in the long run.
Screen Your Customers
In a service-oriented business such as tutoring, fitness training, decorating, and so on, there’s nothing more important than having a good rapport with the client and setting reasonable expectations — on both sides. If, for example, you’re a music teacher and don’t want to work with a student who doesn’t have the time to practice in between lessons, say so. If you have a policy about late payments or missed sessions, put it in writing and make sure the prospective student sees it and agrees with it. Go with your gut. If you think you simply won’t be able to satisfy a prospective customer , politely let that person know and provide a referral. The 80-20 principal tells you that 20 percent of your clients will take up 80 percent of your time. You need to focus your time and energy on the good customers.
When All Else Fails
Working with clients can be a bit like dating. Sometimes it simply doesn’t work out, and the kindest thing you can do is end the relationship. Politely tell the client that you’ve done all you can to make it work and you’ve run out of ideas. If you’ve had a string of unproductive or unpleasant interactions with a customer, it may be time to move on. If possible, take the sting out of the situation by giving a referral to another provider.