Most of the material about dealing with difficult clients is about handling customer complaints. However, in sales, our most difficult clients are often those who haven’t become customers yet.
With them, it’s not so much about complaints, it’s more about the demands they’re making of you. Let’s look at how you can deal with those problem clients, and turn your most difficult prospects into your most loyal customers.
Listen To Them – They May Be Right!
The golden rule with any sales situation is to listen to your client. Let them tell you what they want, and why. If they’re upset about something, let them vent – don’t rush to defend yourself, but let them tell you exactly what they’re upset about and why. If they’re reluctant to buy your product, let them tell you exactly why it’s not working for them. The more they tell you, the better position you’ll be in for the rest of the negotiation, so let them talk.
Most importantly, make sure you’re really listening. Don’t just pretend to pay attention while they rant. You’ll learn a lot about how your customers perceive your products, your services, your company and your competitors, and that’s valuable market intelligence. You’ll learn a lot about your client and their needs. And you’ll learn a lot about the person you’re talking to by the way they speak, their attitude, and their body language. Gather that information, look for every nuance, and put yourself in the best position to move things ahead.
Understand Their Real Needs
What the customer is telling you isn’t always the full story. You need to figure out what’s actually going on. It could be that they’re wavering on a decision because they don’t actually have the budget until next quarter. It could be that the guy you’re talking to is scared of making a costly decision that turns out to be wrong. What they need from you may be nothing to do with the product – they may be looking for alternative payment options, or simply reassurance.
As often as not, customers don’t really know what they need from a product, particularly if it’s a complex one. They know what they think they need, which isn’t the same thing. They may have read something that’s sending them in the wrong direction, or they may have been told all sorts of stuff by a smooth-talking salesman from a competitor (or even from your own company). It’s your job to help them through that.
If they only have to process 100 widgets a day, then it doesn’t matter whether your system can handle 1,000 or 10,000, so don’t bother talking about that. It’s not a benefit for them and it won’t affect their purchase decision. But if they need to switch production from red widgets to blue widgets instantaneously, several times a day, that’s what you need to focus on. If you can solve that problem for them, you can make that sale.
Deflect Anger By Agreeing With Them
Whatever you do, don’t argue with them. Your job is to be their friend and make that sale. So empathize with them. That doesn’t mean you have to totally cave in, but you need to find some common ground to start from so that they know you’re not the enemy.
Essentially, you’re saying to them that you understand their issues, you understand their point of view, and you’re on their side. Take any heat out of the situation and turn a confrontation into a joint problem-solving exercise. You don’t necessarily need to promise that there will be a solution, particularly if the client is asking for something that’s going to be tricky for you to provide, but you do need to show them that you will help them look for the right solution – even if that’s not you. We’ll come back to that controversial concept later.
If you have screwed up – which we all know does happen – then admitting it and being gracious about it is the best remedy. Don’t try to excuse yourself or explain why it happened – at least, not yet. Tell them what you are going to do to fix the problem. Later you can talk about why things went wrong and what you’re going to do to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Deal with the immediate issues first, and that’ll put your client in the right frame of mind for a positive discussion about any future relationship.
A lot of the time, clients aren’t being difficult because they want to be obstructive – they simply don’t understand what you’re talking about. You may know exactly what the advantages of a customizable modular scalar open architecture cloud-based multi-platform subscription-based solution are, but they may not have a clue what any of those words actually mean. (Do you? Or are you just repeating the words on the sales brochure?)
If your client doesn’t get what you’re trying to sell them, they can seem difficult. Make sure you’re not confusing them with technical jargon, business buzzwords or complicated sales talk. Tell them exactly what they need to know, in terms they understand, and make sure they know it’s okay to ask questions. And if you can’t explain your product clearly, then you’re in the wrong role.
Be Direct – What Do You Want?
At some point, you need to cut to the chase. This can take two forms.
The first, and most risky, is simply to make your position clear, and give the client a take-it-or-leave it offer. Just state your terms, and leave it at that. If you want, give them a chance to think it over, but make it clear you’re pretty much done with negotiating. Tell them when you’ll call back for an answer.
The other alternative is to ask the most powerful question of all. “What are you looking for that will make this deal work?” Again, you’re telling them you’re done with negotiating. If they have a reasonable request, you can consider it. If they’re still being unreasonable or don’t know what they want, you know you’re probably wasting your time.
Either of these can work well, depending on the customer. In the first case, you’re taking complete control of the situation. In the second, you’re handing control to the customer. Either way, you both end up knowing where you stand, and it’s up to one party to make a yes/no decision.
Know How Much They’re Worth
The bottom line in any sales situation is how much that deal is worth to you. How much are you prepared to put up with for a low-value deal? And how much are you prepared to concede for a high-value one?
Remember that the value of a client goes far beyond the purely financial value. There may be other reasons why a particular client is important – they may be a route into a new market sector, they may have influential partners, they may have great PR value, or there may be strategic corporate targets that need to be met.
Know When To Walk Away
If negotiations aren’t going well, then do that mental calculation. Is the client worth the hassle? Are you going to get a worthwhile deal out of it? Are you saddling yourself or your co-workers with someone who’s going to be a constant pain? Are you ever going to close this deal, or are they just jerking you around?
Walking away is hard for many of us in sales. It feels like leaving money on the table, but the reality is that the money was never really there with that client.
The skill is to do it tactfully, and then you can at least salvage a small victory from the situation. If your product really isn’t a good fit for the client, tell them so, and recommend a competitor, explaining why you think that they would be better for them. This may be counter-intuitive, but there are three good reasons for doing this. First, it leaves the client with a good impression of you, so they’re not going to be telling others what a pain you are to deal with. Second, it gives you a reputation for honesty, which can actually bring in business. That client you let go will tell others to go and talk to you first, because they have nothing to lose – you won’t try and sell them something that’s not right for them, and they can trust you. Third, if the client really is that difficult, then let one of your competitors take the pain!
Tell Your Colleagues
When you’re having issues with a client, make sure the rest of the company is aware of them, whether or not you actually close the deal. Your CRM database should allow you to record comments on every customer. Make sure that you have a record of what their issues were and how you addressed them, particularly if you’ve had to make specific concessions to this customer. Nothing angers a customer more than when they’ve laboriously hammered out an agreement with an account manager or salesman, and then what they get isn’t what was agreed.
Equally importantly, make sure that anyone else who has to deal with them is fully prepared. Ensure your co-workers knows what the sensitive areas are. Red-flagging a customer as “handle with extreme care” may sound like an overreaction, but it can be very effective!
Bonus Tip – The One Word Pacifier
Possibly the single most useful tip – which works on almost any client, any time – is to use their name frequently when you speak to them. That shows them that you are thinking about them personally, you’re giving them your full attention, and you’re not just treating them like any other client. There’s a huge difference in the client’s mind between these two responses:
“Sure, I understand.”
“Sure, Helen, I understand.”
It doesn’t take much to say their name, and if you can’t remember who you’re talking to, then should you really be in sales?