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Recognizing the Customer from Hell

“Are you fuckers listening?” 

“uh…wha…what?” I sputtered.

“I know what I want done and I want you fuckers to listen.”

Ignoring his insult, I ask a direct question. “This thing you’re asking us to do, you know it’ll hurt your business if it doesn’t work, right?”

Our toxic customer had asked us to do something we both knew would hurt their business. But this was pretty standard for them. Ask for something horrible or impossible, have it blow up in your face, then blame the people that warned you against it.

Insane right? Who allows a customer to treat them like that?

We allowed it because we couldn’t recognize the customer from hell.

Customers from hell behave badly and they get away with it because as entrepreneurs, most of us are ignorant. Most of us don’t know what the customer from hell actually looks like until we’re already in hell with them. But by then it’s too late, they’ve already done their damage.

Which means without recognition, we’re powerless to stop them.

But how do we recognize the customer from hell? Is there a pattern they choose to follow? You’ll need answers to these questions if you plan on using your customers from hell to attract all-stars.

The first step: Recognizing the Customer from Hell.

There are six main types. These customers aren’t necessarily malicious. They may have had a terrible experience with someone before you. Or they may feel that the only way to get what they want is to behave badly. Doesn’t matter, their behavior sucks and you need to fix it. Behaviors like…

1. The Know-it-all can do anything and everything better than you

They know how to run your business better than you (or so they say). They rarely miss an opportunity to remind you that they know more than you. It’s difficult to get these customers to trust you – they seem to believe that deep down you’re really incompetent.

2. Snobs think they’re better than you

They see you as “the help”. They smirk at you; they talk down to you and treat you as if you’re beneath them. Sure, they may follow your instructions, pay their bills on time and do whatever you ask, but only so long as you know your place (that you work for them).

3. Indifferents that love to say “just take care of it”

They pay for your product or sign up for your service. That’s the easy part. Once that happens they disappear. They disconnect, completely removing themselves from the process. They can’t be bothered to help you get the results they’re paying for or do the work themselves. The weird part? These Indifferents are pissed when they don’t get the results they “deserve”.

4. Freeloaders who take as much as they can for as long as they can

If they have to pay they spend as little as possible, working to stretch each dollar further than it’s supposed to go. If they agree to buy your product they want you to throw in a bunch of extras (on top of any bonuses you’re offering) as a sign of “good faith”. If you’re selling services they’ll use vague wording in your documents to squeeze more free work out of you. If 90% percent of your materials are free and you decide to charge for something they’re upset about it.

5. Dictators that tell you what they want, instead of asking

Their attitude? “I’m the one with the money; you’ll do as I say”. Working with these customers becomes an uphill battle as they fight for control over how things are done. They’re okay with abusing you so long as it gets them what they want.

6. Irresponsibles who agree to the terms you lay out ahead of time

Then completely ignore those terms once the sale’s been made. You can’t count on Irresponsibles to keep their word or honor any commitments they’ve made. They’re not always malicious, but they’re not reliable either.

These customer types aren’t isolated either. A customer can be an irresponsible dictator, a freeloading snob or any other combination.

What’s worse, the customer from hell acts as all-star repellant.

They create an environment where all-star customers don’t stick around. If you can’t get all-stars to stick around you’re stuck with mediocre customers and you guessed it, the customers from hell.

So how do you use the customers from hell to attract all-stars?

Customers from hell and their all-star counterparts are attracted to similar things.

  • The know-it-all respects knowledge. All-stars look for knowledge and the sway your knowledge has over others. They want to see that you’ve got an audience (or you’re building one) that cares about the stuff you’re sharing.
  • Snobs believe you’re beneath them. All-stars look for prestige. Are you known in your industry? Are you gaining recognition or winning awards? Are you doing great work locally? All-stars that care about prestige look for elements that say “you’re somebody I should work with”. Prestige won’t eliminate snobbery, it just points it in a different direction.
  • Indifferents are apathetic. All-stars on the other hand, are available. They realize they’ll need to participate in the process to get the results they want. They’ll give you what you need to get the results you’ve promised so share your expectations ahead of time. Tell your customers what you need and when you’ll need it.
  • Freeloaders want something for nothing. All-stars want to try before they buy. They’re more interested in getting what they want and less interested in freeloading so they can do the work themselves. They’ll look for the resources that give them the greatest chance of success and once they’re comfortable, they’ll go for it. Give them an opportunity to sample or try your offer. Show them why they need it and show them how to sign up.
  • Dictators want to be in control. All-stars trust those that are in control. They respect entrepreneurs that have self control and control over their business. Offer dictators controlled choices (do you want A or B?). Give them control over as much as you can, whenever you can. Gently hold them accountable if they cross the line.
  • Irresponsibles are unreliable. All-stars look for reliability. Show all-stars that you’re reliable but make it clear you expect the same from them. Use your policies to create an environment where reliability is rewarded. Accountability makes Irresponsibles nervous but it attracts all-stars to you.

Wait a minute, aren’t most customers like this?

It’s true most customers act like this at one point or another. But you’re not looking for customers having an off day. You’re looking for behavioral trends. Customers from hell display bad behavior on a pretty regular basis; it’s a way of life for them.

Okay, if customers have an off day, does that mean they’re not an all-star?

Nobody’s perfect.

An all-star having an off day isn’t the same thing as a Dictator that’s constantly harassing you with support calls.

What’s more important is how you handle an all-star’s off day. An all-star customer can quickly turn into the customer from hell if they see that bad behavior works.

You’ll need to maintain the right mix of boundaries and expectations if you want them to stay an all-star.

What if my all-stars get contaminated?

How you treat your customers has more of an effect on them. If they have an off day and you handle it poorly your customer may have more “off days”. Too many of those and suddenly you’re dealing with the customer from hell.

You can’t use the customer from hell until you recognize them.

The customer from hell behaves badly and they get away with their bad behavior because entrepreneurs don’t recognize them. Seeing these customers for what they are gives you what you need to attract all-star customers.

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