How to Work with Difficult Customers – RedDotBlog

Difficult customers

There are times when sales come easily. The stars align and you have the right piece for the right person at the right time and everything clicks together. You and the client may hit it off and establish a great long-term relationship.

At other times, you have to work a little harder to make things come together – perhaps searching your inventory, or even creating a new piece for the buyer. If the customer is excited about the process and you can provide great service, the client will look at you as someone who has gone above and beyond to help them meet their needs.

Then there are those times when everything seems to go wrong despite your best efforts. This may happen even when you have done everything in your power to make your customer happy. Let’s face it, some customers are harder to please than others.

How I Deal with “Difficult Customers”

One particular experience sticks with me. On a Saturday afternoon, a couple came into the gallery and fell in love with the work of one of our artists. Ted and Beth (names changed to protect the innocent) both liked the artist’s work and, while working with one of my staff, indicated they would like to see a couple of pieces in their North Scottsdale home. There was only one problem: this home was a second home for them, their primary residence is in the mid-west, and they would be leaving Monday morning. They wondered if there would be any possibility of having us take the artwork out to their home Saturday evening or sometime Sunday.

My staff member came to my office and explained the situation. I came out to meet the clients and let them know I would be happy to make arrangements to show the pieces in their home that evening. I called my wife, Carrie, and told her we would need to modify our evening plans to accommodate the delivery, and she agreed to drive out with me to the client’s home.

When we arrived, Ted and Beth showed us in and indicated two spaces they were considering for the art. Their home was beautiful and the art was going to fit beautifully. One of the spaces was already occupied by a large painting in a heavy frame. I offered to move the piece to a new spot so that we could hang the new painting. Typically moving a piece of art is no big deal for me. After all we do it all the time in the gallery, but this piece was behind glass, heavy, and had mirror hooks instead of a wire, so it required a lot of measuring and grunting to get it hung in its new space. We then proceeded to place the two pieces we had brought.

Let me pause the narration to say that right away we could see that Ted was high-strung, impatient, and more than just a little grumpy. He was polite enough to Carrie and me, but he was clearly impatient with Beth, who immediately proved to be indecisive. The first, smaller piece was immediately a good fit and seemed a sure thing. The second, however, she wasn’t so sure about. First she worried about placement, then she worried about colors in the rug in front of the art, the size of the art, whether Ted really liked the piece, and so on. This was enough to make me a little nervous about our prospects for closing the deal. It doesn’t take much for someone to talk themselves out of buying, and, in spite of my best efforts to reassure Ted and Beth that the art looked great, it was clear we weren’t going to get an immediate decision.

“I do love them both,” she finally said, “I’m just not totally sure about this one. Can I live with it overnight? I think it’s going to be great, I just want to be sure.”

Carrie and I agreed to let them keep the piece on approval if they would let us know first thing in the morning.

“We haven’t even talked about price yet,” Ted said. “I guess we talk about that in the morning, after we decide if we want to keep both pieces.”

I let them know the retail prices but agreed we could offer a collector’s consideration if they purchased both pieces. Ted thanked us for coming and said he would call first thing in the morning.

Carrie and I discussed the encounter on the drive to dinner and decided there was a little better than even chance they would keep both pieces.

True to his word, Ted called first thing in the morning. “We like both pieces, and if we can come to an agreement on pricing, we’ll take them both. Give me a number.”

“Sure,” I said. At this point I would typically reiterate the retail price, tell the client what the tax would be and then make an offer. Ted cut me of three or four words in.

“Look,” he said, “I’m not an art collector, and I don’t want to do the dance where we go back and forth. You just give me a number and I’ll say yes or no. And don’t even talk about tax.”

I was, perhaps, a little taken aback with the brusque nature of his interruption, but I pride myself on being able to think on my feet, and so I did some quick math and gave him a number.

“That’s not quite what I had in mind,” he replied. He told me he would be willing to buy the pieces at a certain percentage off the retail, and I would cover the tax. I did some quick math and realized the total discount was going to be deeper than I would normally give.

“Let me do some checking and call you right back,” I said.

“That’s fine,” Ted replied. “I’m not going anywhere until 11.”

I hung up and started doing calculations, and weighing the best way to proceed. Several of the factors I contemplated were the amount of time I had been carrying the work in inventory, the likelihood I would be able to sell them to someone else in the near future, and a recent conversation I had with the artist about his desire to boost sales.

Though I called back within a matter of minutes, Ted didn’t pick up and I got his voice mail. I left a message detailing a counter-offer that was very close to his offer and requested he call me back and let me know if we could close the sale.

I didn’t hear back from Ted until Sunday evening.

“Listen,” he said when he returned my call, “I told you I don’t want to go back and forth, and I made you an offer. If you can meet the offer we’ll take the two pieces. If not, that’s fine, we’ll pass on the pieces.”

If you have ever been in a similar situation, you know that a thousand thoughts and emotions cross through your mind. The first is a raw irritation that the guy is being abrasive about the process. I love negotiating, and my goal is always to have everyone come out a winner, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the emotion of a moment like this one. Let’s face it, the emotional reaction would be to tell the guy to take a leap; it would be more than just a little satisfying to do so. And it would accomplish . . . nothing.

I knew it would be better for me, and for the artist, to concede that last few hundred dollars and make the sale happen. “Ted, it would be my pleasure to accept your offer,” I said “I can make it work.”

“Great,” Ted replied. “Let me give the phone to Beth and we can arrange getting a check to you.”

“Thank you,” I said, “it’s a pleasure doing business with you, and I know you are going to enjoy the art for many years to come.”

Ted handed the phone over to his wife and I got her email address to give her instructions for mailing the check.

After hanging up, I told Carrie we had done the deal and we celebrated. Even after the discount, this was a significant transaction.

Monday morning I get a voicemail from Beth:

“Hi Jason, this is Beth, you brought the art out to our house Saturday evening. Anyway, I woke up this morning and was looking at the bigger piece and decided that I’m just not as sure about it as I would like to be. I just don’t think it actually is quite as right for the space as I hoped. I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to come and pick it up. I’m so sorry. I am leaving for the airport at 11:15, so I wondered if there’s any way you could pick it up this morning? Please call me back.”

Unbelievable! Again, my raw response was outrage. I had bent over backward to accommodate their needs, and now they were backing out of our deal! I was seething and picked up the phone to start to dial. Halfway through the number I paused, took a breath and hung up. Years of working with customers has taught me to never react to my emotions, and if ever there was a case for waiting ten minutes to cool down, this was it. I ran through the different approaches I might take in returning the call and immediately eliminated the ones that involved any form of irritation, outrage or emotion. There was still a second piece of art in play and the possibility of a future sale for the space we were losing. My cooler head prevailed, and when I finally called back I was in a much clearer frame of mind.

“Hi Beth,” I said, when she answered, “I received your message. I am so disappointed you don’t think the piece works. It looks so great in the space. Obviously our goal is that you be 100% happy, but are you sure you want to give up this piece?”

“Thank you Jason,” she replied. “I am so sorry, but as I got up this morning and saw it in a different light I just realized it wasn’t the perfect piece. I want to keep the other, but I want to wait to find just the right piece for this space.”

We spoke for several more minutes and made arrangements to have the first piece picked up and to get payment for the second piece (of course the previous day’s negotiated price was out the window).

Even after our conversation I sat thinking of different directions I might have taken in responding, but I’m convinced I took the right one. Yelling at the customer and displaying my outrage would have been extremely satisfying, perhaps even cathartic, but not particularly productive. I would not only have lost the sale of the one piece, but the second as well, not to mention any future sales.

Best Practices

When dealing with difficult situations, I have developed and try to stick to several principles. I’m not perfect, and not every outcome is positive, but I can say that I have had many difficult situations turn into sales and have had some of the customers involved in those sales turn into repeat customers.

1. There are no difficult customers, just difficult situations (and yes, I know the title of this post ignores this rule, but I had to get your attention somehow). The moment you start thinking of the customer as “difficult,” you are going to tend to escalate the situation. As you think of them this way, everything they do tends to reinforce the perception.  You are also going to tend to react emotionally to what your client says or does. Maintaining your professional demeanor is critical if you have any hope of turning the situation positive.

2. Don’t take it personally. “Sticks and stones,” the old adage begins, and remember that the only way something your client says can bother you is if you allow it to. It can also help to remember that I am surely not the only one who has had this kind of encounter with this particular customer. For whatever reason, their nature is to approach this kind of situation with a grouchy, antagonistic, caustic, or rude (or perhaps, all of the above) attitude.

3. Take time to cool off. Our gut reaction – the emotion that boils immediately to the surface – is often not the best reaction. The heat of the moment can lead you to say things you may later regret. If a conversation or situation starts heating up, tell your client you need a moment to consider what they are asking. Step away if the encounter is live or offer to call them back if you are conversing via telephone. During the break, consciously examine your emotions. Ask yourself why you are feeling stressed. Analyze what the customer has said. Even if the client has said something ridiculous or made an unreasonable demand, pausing to reflect on the best response is always a good idea.

4. Be courteous. Using civil words like “please,” “thank you,” and “it would be my pleasure” can help to calm any tension.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize. Remember, the goal is to close the sale, or, at least, keep the door open for future sales. As you keep this forefront in your mind you will be able to work to find solutions to the challenges instead of adding fuel to the fire. When formulating responses ask yourself, “How can I say this in a way that will move me toward the sale?” Some salespeople or artists will argue that it’s better to simply refuse to work with difficult customers because you can always sell the art to someone else. I disagree. I have missed an opportunity to sell only to have the piece of artwork remain in inventory for months before finally having to be sent back to the artist. One bird in hand really is better than one in the bush. Unless you are extremely low on inventory, selling a work of art to a difficult customer won’t necessarily prevent you from selling to a future customer. No matter how you cut it, it’s better to make every sale you possibly can.

6. Know your limits. While I am an advocate of negotiating to close sales, and of accommodating a customer’s needs in any way I reasonably can in an effort to be of service, I also understand there have to be limits. I obviously can’t give art away for free, and I can’t provide service that will prevent me from taking care of other clients. If a client makes demands that go beyond those limits, remain courteous and calm, but let them know that you aren’t able to honor their request. Phrase your refusal in a professional and polite way, but be firm. If the client has asked you to discount beyond a point where you are comfortable, say, “Thank you for your offer, and I have worked very hard to accommodate your request. It would be my pleasure to offer the piece to you at $ ________. This is a great value for this piece.” If the client declines, thank them for the opportunity to work with them, and let them know if anything changes and they are able to meet your last offer, you would be happy to be of service. (Of course, there is a lot more to the negotiation process, and it’s not my intention to go into negotiation here, but when negotiations become combative or come to a stalemate, you want to exit with grace). Notice that I am not offering any apologies, excuses, or arguments as I decline an offer. I have found argument and excuses never get you anywhere, and apologies imply that your last offer was deficient in some way. When you reach your limits, draw a line in the sand and let your customer make the decision whether or not to meet you.

Of course, every situation is different, and working with difficult situations often requires thinking on your feet and adapting to the specifics of the encounter. If you follow these principles, I can promise you better outcomes when you encounter difficult sales scenarios.

I can’t say I always enjoy difficult situations when I am in the midst of one, but there is a tremendous feeling of satisfaction when you resolve a difficult situation successfully.

How Do You Deal with Difficult Sales Situations?

What has been your most difficult sales experience? How did you resolve it (if you did), or what do you wish you would have done differently? What is your philosophy when dealing with difficult sales situations? Please leave your comments below.

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