If you have ever read (or watched) The Hobbit, you will no doubt recall the interactions between Bilbo and the dragon, Smaug. If you haven't been so fortunate, picture a huge red dragon, sleeping atop a vast pile of gold, jewels and other treasures.In other words, how most sales reps envision their most lucrative customers. Bilbo was able to apply many effective strategies to dealing with Smaug which your sales team can use to deal with difficult customers. 

Just becuause your most prickly customers don't literally breathe fire, destroy villages or guard magical hordes of gold and jewels, they do require special care. Before you and your salespeople feel the heat of a difficult client, rally the troops and pass on these four tactics. 

1. Show Respect and Empathy

When approaching a difficult customer as a sales rep, or in a supervisory management role, you want to check your emotions, load up on respect, and put yourself in your customer's shoes. Whether you are visiting your client in their office, or taking an escalation call over the phone, you want to rally behind your sales rep where possible, while paying respect to the customer's needs:

  • To be heard, and for their business objectives to be taken seriously
  • For the product or service they invested in to meet the promises your company made when contracting
  • For their investment of time, energy and money to be respected
  • To be considered in the context of their reputation within their organization for buying from you, as well as the impact of your product or service in relation to their business' reputation

You can show respect to a difficult customer by being on time, ensuring consistency of your messaging, and solving problems. 

2. Effective Listening and Understanding

When a sales rep is working with a difficult customer, there are a handful of reasons why they won't be the best listeners: 

  • They could be concerned how the dissatisfied customer will impact their future on your team
  • There may be other customer demands which may take a backseat to the difficult client
  • The sales rep may not be responsible for the customer's dissatisfaction, or they may be powerless to resolve it themselves

Creating an open door policy on customer problems can help to diffuse challenging customer situations. Putting customer problems on the table early can help them be resolved, and help everyone move forward. 

3. Take Quick, Decisive Action

Establishing a pattern of hearing a customer problem, and then acting on it immediately is the best way to build respect, trust and diffuse a complicated situation.

Showing accountability and commitment to customer satisfaction as a sales manager is a great way to build customer rapport, and also sets a great example for your team at the same time. 

4. You've Got to Know When to Hold 'Em, Know When to Fold 'Em

If you, your colleagues and sales reports have gone above and beyond the call, and the customer is still difficult to work with, you might need to cut your losses and move on. If you are negotiating with an existing customer, do your best to find a mutually acceptable end date for your relationship, and the terms of an acceptable set of circumstances to move on.

If you are talking to a prospect, and you don't see a realistic way to a productive, beneficial relationship with a customer, you are likely better off cutting ties, and moving on to other customer business. Ensure the prospect knows you appreciate the consideration, but make it clear your business isn't prepared to work with them on their terms.

If the prospect changes their "tune" and tries to re-establish a working relationship, they may have been testing your limits or they might just be difficult to work with in general. Proceed with caution, and consider the potential gain of working with a challenging customer relative to the extra time and care the customer needs. If your existing accounts might suffer because of a potential client not already on your books, cutting ties early is often the best way to go. 

Once you and your client improve your working relationship at a management level, make sure you either build up their existing account manager to continue to maintain the relationship, or if possible, reassign them to a more senior rep. Either way, keeping tabs on the customer's situation from an arm's length is a good way to be ready to reassert yourself if the need arises. 

Have you had success in applying a specific strategy to deal with complex customers? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

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