8 Remarkably Effective Ways to Cope With an Unreasonable Customer

By Minda Zetlin Co-author, ‘The Geek Gap’ @MindaZetlin

What do you do when “just say no” is not an attractive option?

It happens to everyone, and we all dread it. A customer calls and asks-or demands-that you make an impossible deadline, provide a benefit that you just can’t, or cut your price to a level that will jeopardize your business. But the customer is always right-or at least, they always believe that they are. So how do you respond when they make a completely unreasonable request? It’s always awkward when it happens. But there are things you can do to make it easier:

  1. Empathize.

Unless this customer is deliberately screwing with you, he or she believes that the unreasonable request is in fact quite reasonable. This is because customers know less about your business than you do. If they knew more, you might be their customer instead. To turn this situation around, you have to begin by standing in your customer’s shoes for just a moment. Knowing what they know-and not what you know-why does this seem like a reasonable request? Fully understanding where they’re coming from is the necessary first step to solving this problem.

  1. Lift the veil.

Once you understand your customer’s point of view you also need to help them understand yours. One of the best ways to do this is to share inside information. At the ASJA conference in New York City, we serve luncheons that generally consist of a piece of chicken, some vegetables, some rice, a salad, and a dessert. Those lunches cost ASJA in the neighborhood of $100 a serving. It’s a shocking number-if we simply handed out $100 bills, our attendees could each get a much more lavish lunch anywhere else. It only makes sense if you understand the hotel industry and the challenges involved in serving lunch to 500 people in the space of about 45 minutes. I tell people the cost of our lunches as often as I can to help them understand a) why the conference price is what it does, and b) why we don’t serve more meals.

  1. Ask why.

Why does this project need to be completed by next week? Why do they want you to reduce your price? What problem do they have that’s led to this request, and how else might you help them solve it? What kinds of offers are they getting from your competitors and are those offers really the same as what you’re offering?

  1. Explore alternatives.

Once you’ve learned as much as you can about the problem your customer is trying to solve (or the “better” deal your customer has been offered) start looking for solutions that will work for both of you. Can you meet that impossible deadline with part of the project instead of all of it? Can you solve your customer’s cash flow problem with better terms rather than by lowering your price? Can you suggest a similar product or solution that might work better for them? I guarantee you will find new ideas or approaches that you haven’t considered.

  1. Weigh the consequences.

What are the consequences of saying no, and perhaps losing the customer, compared with saying yes? If what they’ve asked is flat-out impossible, and you fail to find an acceptable alternative, then you won’t have a choice. But often it’s more nuanced-you could say yes if you cut your profit margin out completely, or pull an all-nighter, or do something else you don’t like. Every calculation and every situation is different, and there will be a different right answer in every situation. (Here are some tips on how to customer servicesay no without losing a customer.)

  1. 6. Consider a one-time deal.

If you really don’t want to lose the customer, and you can’t find an alternative that is good for both of you, then consider taking the hit-just one time. Tell them you can provide special consideration in view of your history together. Emphasize that this is a one-time-only concession that won’t be repeated and stick to it if they ask again. Otherwise they will never believe that no means no. There are risks to this approach. You may merely be delaying the inevitable if the customer leaves anyway the next time the same situation arises. An even bigger risk is that your other customers may hear about it and ask for similar concessions. But sometimes this is the best among bad choices.

  1. Apologize.

If you just can’t say yes to the unreasonable demand, then make sure to apologize. After all, you are genuinely regretful that you can’t make them happy. And an apology can go a long way toward preserving a relationship. One caveat-if the customer’s request made you angry, take a deep breath, take a walk, play a video game, or do whatever you need to get over that feeling before interacting with the customer. Otherwise, your relationship-building won’t come off as sincere because it won’t be.

  1. Say thank you.

Even if your customer is being unreasonable, even if he or she is leaving for bad reasons, you have a history together. Honor that history and preserve your connection by thanking the customer for all your past business. Besides being a good thing to do, it’s a smart thing to do. Knowing you’re still on good terms may bring that customer running back to you if whatever they’re leaving for doesn’t work out. More:

  • Why Most Businesses Lose Customers (And How to Keep Yours)
  • 6 Smart Ways to Use YouTube to Win Customers
  • How Stories Make Customers Fall in Love

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