5 Ways to Handle Difficult Customers

Published by Nadeem Muaddi on October 10th, 2011


We’ve all experienced difficult customers before. You know the type – they complain about your prices; drop by everyday to “see how things are coming along”; nitpick on your work before the job is even finished; and – even after you meet all of their requirements – still aren’t satisfied.

Fortunately, there are ways to handle difficult customers. Here are the five best:

1. Charge more

Time is money – and difficult customers often waste a lot of both. Which is why you should consider charging them an ‘aggravation surcharge’. Of course, you shouldn’t call it that or tell them that’s what you’re doing (it might make them even more difficult).

But let’s be honest, some customers’ business isn’t worth the headache it entails. For the really difficult, I’d rather charge more and put up with the fuss, than charge my usual rate and feel like I’m getting the shaft.

Still, keep in mind that a higher price could drive difficult customers away. Depending on how well your auto trim shop is doing, that may or may not be okay.

2. Decline the job

Sometimes it’s in your best interest to not take a job – especially if the customer is too cheap to pay a fair price, is unusually picky or just an all-around pain in the butt.

In such cases, no matter how great of a job you do, the customer will still complain – which is a problem considering that most auto trim shops rely on word-of-mouth marketing for business.

To decline a job, just say that you’re schedule is booked. If you’re feeling exceptionally feisty (and cold hearted), pass the customer onto a competitor.

3. Be specific

When dealing with a difficult customer, it’s important to be as specific as possible.

Ask lots of questions until you’re certain of what the customer wants. If something can’t be done, explain why and offer alternatives. If you think that you may run into a problem with the job, make the customer aware before you even start.

Once you have a good idea of what the customer wants, jot it down on the bill-of-sale and have him sign it. That way, he can’t come back to you once the job is complete and claim it isn’t what he asked for.

4. Set boundaries

The best way to prevent difficult customers from overstepping their boundaries is to set them. What this means is not letting the mantra of “the customer is always right” turn you into a pushover.

If your prices aren’t negotiable, say so – and explain why you set them the way you do. Or, if you don’t like difficult customers barging onto your shop floor everyday to “see how things are coming along”, tell them that the shop floor is for employees only (blame it on “insurance reasons” and they won’t argue).

The point is, difficult customers can’t aggravate you unless you allow them to. Be polite, yet firm, and set your boundaries.

5. Keep your cool

 Inevitably, you’ll get a customer who’ll drive you so nuts that you’ll want to tell him off and kick him out. Don’t.

The worst thing you can do in front of a customer is lose your cool. Angry or dissatisfied customers are notorious for telling everyone they meet about how bad of an experience they had at your shop. Obviously, that isn’t good for your business’ reputation or your livelihood.

In cases like this, the best thing to do is swallow your pride and send the customer off happy. The next time he returns for a job, just tell him your schedule is booked.

We want to hear from you: If you have any tips on how to deal with difficult customers, please share them in the comments section below.

6 Responses

  1. Nadeem says:

    This post received loads of comments in another upholstery forum. These include:

    Gene: Setting boundaries is very important. Policies, pricing, terms: these are all boundaries.

    One of my favorite stories: I had a guy who wanted a price. I started to ask questions to get details so I could give him a price. He interrupted me and said he just wanted a price. I started to explain that I need details of his furniture in order to give him a price. He interrupted me again and was started raising his voice. He said there was no reason I could not give him a price.

    I said, “Twenty-five dollars.” He said “Twenty-five dollars for what?” I said, “I don’t know. You won’t tell me.”

    He left and I hope he tells all his like minded family and friends how unreasonable I was.

    sofadoc: My favorite way to handle difficult customers is a 3 step process.

    Step 1 Print off list of 5 ways to handle difficult customers
    Step 2 Forward list to my competitor
    Step 3 Send difficult customers to my competitor

    scarab29: When it comes to the “i just want a price guy” Sometimes I’ll say “A million” then I get the ” Just to fix a zipper? ” No zippers are much cheaper than that. Gets them to tell me what they really want without me asking !! Aggrivation fees built in to a job are a good way not to feel “burnt” on a P I A job for sure.

    Ever have a customer that was just too expensive to have. A couple times in my 25 years in retail I have had to tell a customer I’d prefer they shop somewhere else. Basically this is the guy that wants the personal serviceat a bargain basement price , returns more than he bought , wastestoo much of your time and never will sign the deal.

    sofadoc: I really liked #4 on the list : Set boundries, don’t let the “Customer is always right” mantra turn you into a pushover.

    I think that “The customer is always right” policy is fine for retail stores. All they have to do is take the merchandise back, give you a refund, and put the merchandise back on the shelf (or send it back to the manufacturer for credit).

    You can’t put your labor back on the shelf.

    My policy is “The customer is always right……unless they’re wrong”.

    Joys Shop: Customer called yesterday
    Said he had some bar stools
    started to describe their design ( I rarely listen to descriptions)
    Then he asked what I would charge to cover them—Told him I wouldn’t know without seeing them
    so he said
    Have you covered bar stools before?
    Said “yes”
    then he says
    Well, what did you charge to do those?

    Like I have all past charges stored in a little file cabinet in my brain
    I can’t even tell you what I’m charging for the piece of furniture I’m working on now!

    byhammerandhand: I used to listen to a call in show (Bruce Williams) and he said many times, “The customer is not always right, but he is always the customer.” I would mentally add, “Unless you fire them.”

    There have been a couple of customers that I have refused to do work for. Too much frustration and too little compensation.

    I have a late uncle that was a folksy sort of guy (a dairy farmer). He had an expression, “How much water does it take to fill a leaky barrel?” Only when I got into calculus, did I really realize there is no simple answer to that question without knowing a lot of things. How big is the barrel? How fast are you adding water? Where and how big are the leak(s)? What does “full” mean?

    sofadoc: Right there with ya!

    When they start describing their furniture over the phone, all I hear is “blah blah blah blah”.

    I like the ones who start rattling off EVERY EXACT measurement for EVERY SQUARE INCH of the frame, and expect me to instantly give them a yardage estimate.

    When they insist on an instant estimate, I simply over-shoot.
    I’ve gotten pretty good at giving a quote from an e-mail pic.

    slodat: A good portion of my business comes from local people in to the same style cars. A good portion of these guys are notorious for being super cheap. Like waste a dollar to save a penny kinda thing. I finally realized that I simply can’t make money off of the cheapskate people. They have no interest in quality or craftsmanship.

    I can’t hear anyone when they start describing and I won’t give a quote on the phone ever again. Not even a ballpark estimate.

    jojo: How’s this for annoying: I have my ad on Craigslist, and somebody texted me for a quote. Yep, texted. If they can’t pick up the phone, then I think I already know I don’t want to work with them.

    JuneC: I always charge more. I also have a few customers who are definitely NOT difficult, very nice people, but indecisive as heck. When I go to their boat for even a few small repairs, I can count on being there half a day while they hmmmm and hawwww about the details. I’m starting to charge them more now that I know their “modus operandi”.

    Gregg @ Keystone Sewing: Gene, LOVE your post, too funny. LOL

    I LOVE the ‘can’t put labor back on the shelf’ comment, too true.

    A lot of customers, IMO, seem to ‘know’ when they fall into one or more of the fcategoriesires; they know when they are being unreasonable, but sometimes they just don’t care. I do little, but my Dad would be very direct with these types of customers, often with very positive results. Of course, how you attack this can be a delicate situation but, again, most understand when they are being big pain in the butt.

    Kathy0701: I LOVED Bruce Williams! We listened to him on Saturday nights when we had little kids and not much else! We learned tons from that guy. At the same time, we fixed up our old house. Great memories!

  2. Len Cardenas says:

    Upon completion of an convertible top install I let the woman (owner of the car) know that it came with a 3 year warranty on the top. She insisted that she wanted the 5 year warranty. We went back and forth on this for several minutes. I assured her that 3 years is the only warranty that the manufacturer allows. She got angry and continued to push on this and would not budge. I hit the counter, looked her in the eye and aggreed that I would give her the five year but that it would be on 3 year paper. She laughed and finaly agreed to accept the 3 year.

    • Nadeem says:

      That’s hilarious Len! I find that good humor is a great way to diffuse a tense situation… well, so long as the customer has a funny bone.

  3. Kyle Caswell says:

    The customer is not always right. A size 13 steel toe boot in the hind end out the door has worked for me!!

  4. stitcher_guy says:

    All the suggestions are great to try, and everyone has at some point probably come across an opportunity to put them into play. But, also, everyone who has ever owned their own business/shop has also had at least one of those moments where they just flat out lose it. They vent, launch, unlease all over the customer and every now and then, it turns out to be the best course of action with that particular person. My instance happened last summer. Doing full interior in a 41 Chevy, which came in as junk. The customer kept pushing and needling and griping that I wasn’t getting his car done fast enough, because he had shows he’d planned on attending. This car had been driven to shows for 25 years with no interior, but by God, it had to be finished. One Saturday morning, he and his girlfriend came in the shop with a chip on their shoulder (he’d left the wife at home). I had had enough, and read him the riot act, offering four different times to open the door and help him push it outside to be taken home. By the end of my tirade, he was back in line, meek, realized that his was not the only project in my busy shop, and we finished the car without another complaint or gripe. The other guy in my shop laughed every time the customer would stop by after that episode. “Man, Russ, you whipped him down like a dog.” Sometimes enough is enough.

  5. Craig McMillan trimjitsu says:

    Trying to give an accurate quote over the phone can be very difficult if not impossible, everyone seems to want a “ball park figure” so I`ve started asking these questions back 1.what size ballpark are we looking at??,2.Is it a minor league game or a majors?? 3. Finally I ask are the bases loaded and can you hit a home run??. Sometimes the customer gets an understanding of my questions but there are still some that say ” no I just need a price on my seats”. Dealing with customers can be so difficult but without them many of us would be out of a job:)

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