Dealing with your worst customers

Most customers are a real pleasure to deal with, but once in a while, you inevitably encounter one of those customers that defy the social etiquette and behave outrageously for one reason or another. How you deal with such customers tells the story about who you really are as a business and at the same time, it can leave a mark on your reputation. So how do you deal with such customers?

Well, one common advise that you read in popular business book is to “fire your worst customers”. This advice is not necessarily a purely pragmatic advice, motivated by cost and profitability – and indeed, bad customers can be a drain on your resources in terms of support, time spent answering their emails, phone calls, addressing complaints and so on. It’s a recommendation that goes against another very popular advice found in many business books that says: “The customer is always right!”.

So which school of thought do you follow? Do you think the customer is always right or do you fire the worst customers?

At Clevertim, we believe the truth and the right thing to do is somewhere in the middle. We believe in general customers are in their right to ask for things to work properly without hitches and we do apologize and fix things quickly when it’s our fault. Inevitably some people are frustrated when things don’t work as they expect to and tempers differ. This doesn’t bother us.
However, we draw the line at abuse and intimidation of our staff. We believe our staff and any staff, any human being in fact, has the right to perform their duties and live their lives free of abuse and intimidation from anyone, irrespective of what the situation is.

If that happens, we don’t fire customers though. Everyone has ups and downs and we know and accept that. When that happens, we try to cut through the emotion and negativity to see what the real problem is and address that. Is there a problem with the payment? Is there a fault with the website? What’s the root cause of the problem – get to that one thing we can do something about. Then just fix it and move on.

The other thing we do is to be honest with our customers. We’re a small business ourselves and we operate with limited resources. One of our goals is to keep the cost down for our customers, so that means that we can’t do everything. For example, we cannot offer phone support – we only offer email support, which we like to think it’s very responsive and helpful as we don’t have many layers between support people and developers or managers who can actually fix the issues. We also cannot implement all the features under the sun. We listen, but sometimes politely explain we cannot do it.

Some customers fire themselves at that point, when they realize we cannot do for them what they want: e.g. phone support or feature X, Y or Z. It’s just a fact of life. We cannot be all things for everyone. But for most of our customers we solve a real business problem of managing the data about their own customers. We like to keep those customers happy by any means we can.

Now, that being said, back to you… how do you deal with your worst customers?

Web based contact management for web designers

Do you run a web agency? How do you keep track of your leads and existing customers? Well, it’d be ironic if the answer wasn’t “on the web”. Actually the answer depends a lot on your size. If you’re a small agency, you don’t need more than a spreadsheet, your inbox and your good memory. The problem manifests itself once you start growing a bit or if you start outsourcing certain services to freelancers, virtual assistants etc.

For example, Steve McKenna, a friend of mine running a small web agency, told me that a while ago started using virtual assistants, mostly people he sourced from odesk or elance. He was using virtual assistants for getting leads from social media, essentially outsourcing the filtering of social media leads. Social media can be a great source for lead generation: a lot of people ask for recommendations for a good web design agency on twitter, linkedin groups, various forums and even on facebook.

Scouring the social media every day to track these down and try to communicate with those users is very time consuming and potentially not fruitful. Certainly, not for someone who wants to focus on web design and high value, qualified leads – i.e. people who are very close to buying your services, rather than long shots.

It’s the ideal type of tasks that can be outsourced to cost effective virtual assistants who are located in countries where the cost of living is cheaper than the UK or USA. Virtual assistants based in countries like India, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, China or eastern Europe can do that work for you. So how would that work?

Well, the way Steve works with his virtual assistants is he’s asking them every day to search various social media websites he provided them with for various keywords. For example, the virtual assistants would search twitter every day for keywords like “recommend web design”, “need web design”, “suggest web agency”, and so on. Steve has provided the full list of keywords and the full list of social media venues. They would identify tweets like “Can anyone recommend a good web designer?” or “Anyone know a good web agency in London?”.

Once identified, the virtual assistants would try to engage them by messaging them with a soft approach. Again, Steve has defined what’s ok and what’s not ok when engaging potential customers on social media. Steve has a soft approach to engaging such early stage leads as he doesn’t want to alienate people or make them feel uncomfortable. The virtual assistants mostly approach users with “Hi, please consider our agency for great work. See our portfolio here”. They’re instructed not to annoy further, unless the lead expresses some interest, or starts interacting.

This approach has the advantage that it replies to existing requests for information – so it’s not spam. It has the advantage of engaging people who already have the problem and they’re actively looking for the solution – i.e. they need web design services. The other, side benefit, is the fact that a link to the portfolio is posted in a genuine conversation that can be witnesses by other potential customers or that can attract curious onlookers. Some might become customers in the short or long run. It’s brand awareness as, in the process, some people who didn’t know about your web agency now know.

At this point, if the user engages or expresses interest, the virtual assistants enter their details into a web based contact management system (and in this case it happens to be Clevertim CRM) where an onshore team member will pick it up and continue the conversation until the deal is hopefully closed. This basic workflow is followed repeatedly every day for a multitude of social media venues: twitter, linkedin groups and a list of forums Steve provided.

But does it work? Well, according to Steve it does. He couldn’t afford someone onshore to do that sort of triage, but when low cost virtual assistants do it, it tends to be profitable in the long run. The links to the portfolio that are posted on the social media also generate leads that cannot be easily attributed to the virtual assistants and they also help with Steve’s web agency’s SERP rankings for SEO purposes.