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Customer from Hell: Special Needs


Every now and then you find yourself having to deal with the ‘special needs’ customer. This is the customer who, regardless of the situation, feels compelled to ask for a little more than what other customers receive. He (she) wants a lot of personal attention, and does not like to have to do things on his own.

He will invariably find a reason to send food back at a restaurant. He’s on the phone with your customer service team daily. His appointments have to be at specific times. This isn’t the customer with a disability or someone with a serious challenge, it’s just someone who sees being ‘picky’ as a positive trait.

There was an argument being tossed around a while back that we should consider ‘firing’ such demanding customers. The theory was that the profits generated by these customers don’t justify their high maintenance requirements. While there are certainly exceptions that validate this philosophy, it more often represents unproductive short-term thinking from a business perspective. It assumes that customers don’t talk to each other, and that your organization doesn’t need positive word-of-mouth. It assumes that customers will never increase the amount of business they do with you; or that a individual you’re dealing with will never change companies to one that is larger and more profitable. Dangerous assumptions all.

The truth is, the best approach to customers hasn’t changed much over the years. Trying hard to give them what they want, when they want it, and how they want it still has the biggest payoff of any other strategy. Even for the demanding customers.

Most often, the special needs customers just like to feel as though they are important. They want reassurance that you value them and their business. They are compulsively and (from your perspective) unnecessarily picky, but they are also very often your most loyal cheerleaders. There’s a reason they keep coming back, and it’s not just to torment you. It’s because you are likely one of the few people who will actually try to live up to their standards.

If you are really at a stage, though, where an individual is absolutely overwhelming you with special requests, here is an effective three-step approach:

1. Stand your ground one request at a time. Be pleasant and sympathetic, but firm. For example, “Yes, Mr. Smith, I know we used to be able to accommodate that, but unfortunately it’s not something we can offer to our customers any more. I wish we could.”

2. Don’t just leave the last statement hanging there as some kind of unstated challenge to the customer. Move the conversation ahead by asking a related, open-ended question. For example, “Did you want this delivered on Tuesday or Wednesday?”

3. The customer will still protest (that’s the nature of this customer), but don’t give in once you’ve taken a stand. If you do, you stand no chance of changing the situation.

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