How Customer Success Managers should deal with difficult customers

Are customers putting you in a tight spots? Might be time to revaluate your partnership

You find yourself thinking, “is this guy being a bit of a pain in the butt, or is it just me?” If this isn’t a one-time, out of character outburst, you might just have a difficult customer on your hands. In my experience these types of customers are quite rare, but when you’re in the thick of things these issues can be a big barrier to success. Here are a few tips for how to handle a few common types of difficult customers.

Issue: I find that people are most often rude or short-tempered after suffering some perceived injury.

Solution: Aggression often stems from frustration or anger from the customer’s perspective, so this is an opportunity dig into what is causing this level of distress.

Issue: Account Managers are rarely afforded the luxury of having just a few accounts upon which to dote. For that reason, AMs have to become skilled at prioritizing customer requests or projects across their many accounts. No one likes to know that you have de-prioritized their project to work on more important items, but there is an art to letting customers know that you are not able to spend as much time on their account as they would like. Sometimes it feels like groundhog day: a customer asks how your product works, what restrictions there are in trafficking campaigns for fewer than a month, what price you suggest they sell your product for- all questions you answered last week and the week before. The information you have shared with them doesn’t seem to be sinking in. Or, they call 10 seconds after they send you an email if you haven’t responded.

Solution: If the frequency of outreaches is your primary concern, schedule a standing call to discuss all their non-urgent topics once a week. This will shift the dynamic- from them frantically calling or emailing you with questions that they expect an answer to within a few hours, to them now aggregating their questions to be answered at a predetermined time. If the issue is a lack of information sinking in, you can also direct them towards resources that might be able to answer their questions when you’re not around, such as a support portal or a support team. The goal is twofold- to make your customers more self sufficient, and to encourage them to reach out to the support team with questions they can easily answer. Let customers know when you’re generally more free to answer questions. For instance, I generally answer emails first thing in the morning so any early emails get a fast response time. However, I find it hard to ensure a timely response if the email comes in after about 2pm, as I’m usually immersed in a project or internal meeting.

Issue: Perhaps they think that your support team should be willing to pitch the product to customers during sales meetings, that your operations team should be content with trafficking a campaign that will make your company only a few dollars, or that you should be able to provide guidance for their first digital sales hire- these are all examples of things my team or I have been asked over the years. It’s better to have a hard conversation around what you are able to offer than waiting to see what crazy question they come up next.

Solution: The best time to lay a strong foundation for the partnership is during the initial product launch (example of launch process). When problems arise because a customer has unrealistic expectations of your company’s services, doesn’t understand your product’s value, etc., return to the launch process to allow each party to explain in broad strokes how you expect your partnership to work. This a great opportunity to ask what the customer’s goals are, as they might have changed what they need from the partnership. Taking the time to re-establish expectations for both parties can be an easy way to put a partnership back on track and to turn a “difficult” customer into one that is perfectly pleasant to work with.

Issue: “Your product doesn’t do xyz? I think it should, can your team build these features into the current product?” The Customer Success team is often responsible for collecting customer feedback and product requests and passing this feedback along to the Product and Engineering teams. However, not every customer request can or should be built, and these requests sometimes stem from a lack of customer understanding about what the core value of your product is.

Solution: Your product cannot be all things to all people and the Customer Success team is often tasked with educating customers on what the future direction of the product will be. This article does a great job of explaining how to say no to customer feedback.

After deploying all these tactics, you’re still having issues. It is a sad fact of life that some people are just difficult. Try to be creative about leveraging alternative resources- such as the sales person who signed the account, reach out to a contact at the company that you have a better relationship with, etc. Hopefully you will be able to make progress by trying a different approach, or perhaps you will be able to uncover where the issues you’re running up against stem from. If you really can’t make any progress with a difficult customer, you should escalate the issue to your manager. Your manager might consider reaching out to their manager to discuss the best way for the partnership to move forward. Your manager should also consider reaching out to the head of the sales team to ensure they aren’t setting the wrong expectations with potential customer.

Customer Success consultant, writer, and expert

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