Calming "Customonsters" and Other High-Maintenance Clients

Jan 24, 2019

By Kate Zabriskie

It’s been over twenty years since Madonna first sang about being a “material girl in a material world,” and since that time, customers have become more demanding when it comes to the level of service they expect from businesses. One might argue that this age of the high-maintenance customer is simply due to businesses’ inability to hire qualified people, and in some cases this is true. However, product and service customization, competition, and “the customer is always right” attitude have helped create more than a few high-maintenance “customonsters” who, over time, may be more work than they are worth to your business.

If your employees are to survive the demands of high-maintenance customers, you need to give them the tools they need. Here are several actions you should take when planning your service strategy and tactics:

  1. Determine what you will and won’t do to satisfy customers. If you will take back tires even though you are an exclusive clothing store, fine. If you will only do it for your “platinum” customers, that’s fine also. The point is, you must have clear rules in place. Otherwise, you are headed for a path of inconsistency and dissatisfaction. To kick off your planning, answer the following questions:

    • Are there some customers we would rather not have? If so, who are they?
    • How much abuse do I expect my employees to take from difficult customers? Should they allow a customer to yell at them, call them stupid, incompetent, and so on?
    • What special accommodations will I make to satisfy demanding customers, when they are justified in complaining and when they aren’t?
  2. Train your employees on the rules you have put in place. Be prepared to visit and revisit this step several times. Turnover and other circumstances will affect your need for training. Furthermore, effectively dealing with “customonsters” is not always an intuitive process. One training session is usually not enough. Practice, practice, and more practice make for better service. Your training should include most if not all of the following information:

    • Teach your employees to explain your processes to your customers so they can align their expectations with what you can realistically deliver. “Mrs. Smith, I understand that you want to transfer your money from this CD to another investment vehicle today. However, the new investment vehicle will not be available for another week, and in addition, you may lose money by doing this transfer. When this new investment vehicle is available, we will call you immediately and let you know. In the interim, here is another plan that might be better suited for your needs.” Remember to remind employees to stay calm and not to raise their voices, no matter how angry the other person gets.
    • Keep the focus on the problem, not the person. If the customer is unhappy because a certain service or product is not available today, keep the conversation about what services or products are available, what you can substitute, and any discounts you can provide. Tell your employees not to let the customer make a situation pesonal by answering rhetorical questions such as, “Do you have any idea how this is going to make me look, if I don’t get this product today?” If your employees take the bait, there’s no winning: “Miss Jackson, I’m sure it’s not a big deal if you don’t get this product today.” Don’t make presumptions about what will please the customer. That will just create a losing situation. A better statement might be, “Miss Jackson, although it’s not perfect, I do have a similar product that is available today, that you might want to try.”
    • Give employees a Plan B. If the customer is not happy with an employee’s efforts, have someone else, such as a manager or supervisor, step in. Make sure employees know when to take this action. Do yourself a favor and don’t leave Plan B up to chance.
  3. Recognize and reward employees who handle difficult and demanding customers well. It’s impossible to expect employees to make the right decision 100% of the time. However, if they know you are watching and that you treat every mistake as a learning opportunity, you are more likely to get the best out of your staff.

  4. Never embarrass your employees in front of customers. Never yell at them in front of customers and don’t immediately assume that the customer is giving you the full picture. “Customonsters” feed on negativity. The last thing you want to do is reinforce bad behavior by communicating through your actions that abuse is okay—even if you have decided that you will take a fair amount from the customers yourself.

  5. If all else fails, you may consider freeing your “customonsters.” You might suggest other businesses that they might find more suitable. But remember, most of the time you should be able to satisfy your customers—even the material boys and girls, if you have solid processes in place, act professionally and follow up on any promises you make.

About the Author(s)

Kate Zabriskie is the founder of Business Training Works, Inc., a company that specializes in soft skills training. For more information, visit: or call: 301-934-3250.