Tips for Managing Difficult Clients

“Whether your salespeople are easy going and tend to give in or tough minded and don’t back away from a good fight, you need to teach them how to ‘hold up the mirror’ to difficult customers to show them how they are behaving.”

authors  | May 3, 2019

Picture this: One of your better salespeople (let’s call her “Claire”) spends many hours helping a very nice client select what will work best in her home. As Claire’s manager, you’ve noticed how well she’s done her job. She’s developed a very nice relationship with her client and gained that client’s trust while writing up some upscale and rather profitable products. They’ve had some good laughs along the way and the client appreciates Claire’s easy attitude yet professional manner. She has made the job so much easier!

To add icing to this nice cake, Claire has truly enjoyed working with this client. She appreciates that her knowledge was being put to good use and that the client agrees with most of her suggestions. Claire likes what she does and loves working at your showroom. It’s the perfect scenario: happy customers, profitable material being sold and a contented sales staff.

Of course, the client must first bring their significant other to see what was selected but that won’t be a problem. The client’s partner typically doesn’t really care about this type of thing. Claire looks forward to meeting them together and wrapping up this order. It was a fair amount of work, but the fast math she does in her head tells her that she will earn some decent commissions on this job.

Then the disaster strikes.

It turns out that the significant other isn’t always so agreeable and likes to put their foot down once in a while. The person reasons that your client really doesn’t always know how to get the best deal. Sure, they both work and make good money. But when the original client finds a store they like, the person is usually too busy making friends with everyone. The partner always has to be the bad guy in order to get the good deal. Meanwhile, our poor unsuspecting salesperson Claire, who worked so well with the client, has no idea about the freight train heading her way.

And, by the way, the significant other likes to do internet research. So, of course, research has been done on a few of the products Claire is recommending and the client’s partner now has a pretty good idea of what things are “worth.”

So how should Claire handle this partner? They just walked in on a busy Saturday and started raising objections in every direction. Claire is starting to see all her hard work go down the drain of that lovely free-standing tub she recommended! The partner is looking at her as only an uptight customer can when confronting a major expenditure that they are not too thrilled about in the first place.

Let’s take a fast look at the options. One avenue Claire can choose is to throw an equal amount of grief back at the partner and defend her pricing until the death. After all, she has a lot of time invested here and the client had done all of the work with her. Who are they, “Partner Penny Pincher,” coming in at the last minute to ruin everything? The selections are right, the prices are value-
oriented and she needs to get it all ordered now to have it delivered on time.

Or, Claire can give in a little to this partner; perhaps just enough to make them happy. “So, what if we lose 5% or so on the order,” she might think, “that’s better than losing it all.” She can further rationalize that this partner has a right to be a part of something that is going to extract some serious dollars from their bank account, even if they are acting a little crazy. Besides, Claire is a nice person and nice people like to avoid conflict at all costs.

But wait, this partner isn’t done yet. The partner is the type of personality that, when there is a perception of gaining the upper hand, enjoy playing it for all it’s worth. The partner is now waving their arms and raising their voice. The partner is playing the “let’s make these silly little salespeople squirm” game. This is their way of having the showroom earn it and saving some of the couple’s money in the end, too. And look, a bonus, other customers in the showroom are watching and learning.

Now Claire, a super salesperson, might not like dealing with this type of behavior. She’s a professional who solves problems, overcomes challenges in the field and substitutes the best alternatives when back orders hit. Claire knows this business but she might not be the type to deal with partners of clients having mini tirades. “I hate this job,” she may later on tell a fellow salesperson. “Who needs to put up with this nonsense?” And in five short minutes, this partner has managed to swing that pendulum from the “I love my job” feeling over to the “I’m not getting paid enough for this” side of thinking.

Whether your salespeople are easy going and tend to give in or tough minded and don’t back away from a good fight, you need to teach them how to “hold up the mirror” to this type of customer. Salespeople need to learn how to show that difficult client how they are behaving. The playing field needs to be leveled before the process can continue.

You do this by continuing to ask questions, much like Claire did in the beginning of the sales process while qualifying the customer. After all, Claire didn’t decide to invest her valuable time because someone walked in off the street saying that they needed help creating a new bathroom. She first found out how the client heard of them, who is going to be purchasing the product, what the budget was, when it will be needed, where it is going, etc. So now it’s time to ask some more questions! When objections are raised, ask for more information. Remember, when the client says “No,” they really mean “Know,” as in they need to know more in order to say “Yes!” You can overcome objections by asking more questions.

So now, armed with this knowledge, Claire steps a little closer to the partner, who is busy showing everyone else in the showroom exactly how one gets a good deal in this place. Claire looks the person in the eye and calmly asks the following pivotal question:

“You seem upset. Did I say something to upset you?”

Claire has learned over the years how to handle this type of situation. She asks a rather simple question. She knows when to “hold up the mirror” and show people how they are behaving. She doesn’t get defensive or try to match their belligerence. She just inquires about what the problem might be with a simple question and waits for the answer. Besides, asking a question gives you a little more time to think.

The partner, however, instinctively knows how to recover, even if they bring it down a notch. They respond by saying “No, I’m not upset, it’s just that your prices are high. I checked them out online.” But Claire has been trained well, she knows that the first thing she needs to accomplish is to get this partner calm, on her side and ready to knock down the sales barriers they just put up. So, she reinforces her counter attack with a follow-up question, “It’s just that you seem so upset. I was wondering if I had said something to upset you?” Claire then stops talking and waits for her answer. She is not putting that mirror down so fast.

Now the partner senses trouble; this salesperson is good. She’s not letting anyone walk all over her. And the client is looking at them with those eyes that could kill. All of a sudden, they realize that they are messing with their partner’s new best friend.

“No, I was just wondering why this faucet is so much more than that one over there?” the person asks in a somewhat calmer voice. Claire smiles to herself; she knows victory is right around the corner. The once agitated partner is now behaving more calmly and actually asking a good question. This question is one that Claire has answered many times in her career. Still being the professional, she first compliments the question before proceeding to explain the difference. After all, this partner is now Claire’s new best friend and it’s time to close this sale. ▪

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