After a rather demanding few weeks I thought I would deviate from general writing topics and focus more on the business side of things for this week’s topic. Since I started Diane Mannion Writing Services seven years ago I have had the pleasure of working with some great clients and the vast majority have given me no problems whatsoever. However, most of us come across situations when we have to deal with difficult customers.
Having worked in credit management for 14 years prior to becoming a writer, I can instinctively spot whether a customer is going to give me problems. Thankfully it’s a rare occurrence but we all get awkward customers from time to time. However, there are certain steps you can take to protect yourself, and your business. Here are a few tips that might help:
- Don’t be frightened of turning away business. If you think there’s a chance that you won’t get paid or the profit margins will be too low, just say no. You’re not obliged to take on any business you’re not comfortable with. I was in two minds about a client recently. His manner on the phone was quite unpleasant and I got a bad vibe from him. Unfortunately, I was tempted by the possibility of future business but I definitely regretted my decision to accept his business.
- Get everything in writing. Provide a written quotation for every job and get the client’s written agreement to the quotation. If you provide a service, agree the client’s requirements in writing so that he understands exactly what is being included. Keep this written agreement as you might need it if a conflict arises in the future.
- Agree payment terms at the outset; the client does not set the payment terms, you do. Occasionally you may want to fall in with a large company’s policy of paying once a month, for example, if it’s the only way to gain their business. However, they cannot demand extended credit terms as a right. If you only accept payment terms of 7 days, for instance, then it is important to get your customer’s written agreement to this at the outset from someone in authority. You will have to think about how important this is to you and balance the volume of business against the need to maintain a healthy cash flow. If you can’t afford to wait 30 days (or sometimes more) for payment then you may decide that this business isn’t worth your while.
- Don’t be frightened of taking sanctions. If a client refuses to pay and you know that the money is due, there may be steps that you can take aside from going to court. For example, could you withhold further orders? N.B. this will only work if the client cannot obtain the same type of goods or quality of service elsewhere. Would negative publicity (about refusal to pay) be harmful to the client, or reporting him or her to a professional or regulatory body if the client’s business is linked to one?
- Stay firm but polite. There are a few customers that try bullying tactics. They will make unfounded claims about poor goods or services to deliberately avoid payment. Don’t let them intimidate you. If you know that you have performed the particular service to the required standard, or sold goods at the required standard, then be prepared to counter their claims. You shouldn’t be expected to work for free.
- Taking legal action. It’s not always necessary to go to court but if all attempts to collect outstanding money or settle a dispute have failed then you may have to consider taking legal action. Before you do so, you must send a formal letter notifying the customer of your intention to take legal action. This is known as a ‘letter before action’ and you can find out more about how to do it here. Often this will be sufficient to prompt the customer into making payment. However, if this doesn’t do the trick then you may have to take things a step further. Even if you decide to take legal action, it still isn’t always necessary to attend court. There is a procedure known as the Small Claims Court which makes it easier, more convenient and less intimidating to settle claims under £10,000. You can find out more about it here. If you are considering taking legal action it is important to document everything as this will help to back up your claim. This is where the items referred to in points 2 and 3 will come in useful. Even if you don’t reach the legal stage I have found it useful in the past to be able to point out to clients exactly what they agreed and when, especially when I have something in writing to prove it.
I hope that this information helps you in your business dealings and would love to hear about any experiences you have had with difficult customers. Please don’t mention anyone by name though as I wouldn’t want to find myself being taken to court for libel – haha!
6 thoughts on “Dealing with Difficult Customers”
Useful information here Diane, thanks for sharing. I feel as if I’ve been very fortunate as I’ve only had one client refuse to pay in my 17 years of being self employed and their company was going bankrupt so I don’t think it was personal. Difficult customers though is a different thing. I’ve had several that I have found a little trying! Mostly it is because they are so demanding and expect me to be available 24/7. Seriously the only day I haven’t been contacted by a client on is Christmas Day and even then one year someone put their paperwork through my letterbox on the way to their relatives house! My doorbell has gone as early as 7am and one client ‘called in’ at midnight ‘because our lights were on’ – we had friends round who found it astonishing!
Thanks for your comments Georgia. The constant interruptions must be awful for you as you must feel as though you never have any down time. We all need to escape from work now and again. I used to use my mobile for business and had some clients (and sales callers) phoning me in the evenings so I swapped to a Skype phone so that I can only take calls when the computer is switched on. I also publish my business hours as 9 to 5 on my website contacts page. Although I sometimes have to work outside those hours at least it means that I am in control. It’s easier for me though as most of my work is conducted over the Internet whereas I expect that you have to receive paper documentation from your clients. It might be an idea to include a polite note with invoices to clients asking them not to call at your home outside business hours because you also have to consider your family’s needs.
Difficult clients are one thing, impossible clients quite another. Evidently you know exactly how to deal with them Diane. I used to work at a Premier League Football Club, and there was always the odd terrible client. The type that would throw money at you when they had to pay for something, or make you pick it up off the floor. At least if you are self employed you can be choosy about your clients, but the down side is it’s all on you when there’s a problem.
That’s true Guy. The thing I used to hate about working in credit control was the amount of abuse we used to get on the phone. It’s difficult when it’s someone else’s business as you just have to put up with it. Thanks for your comments. 🙂
A good post Diane. Many people don’t like dealing with this difficult issue but there isn’t much point working hard for customers who can’t or won’t pay. We have a site which might be of help if things escalate towards court, which we hope might be of interest to your readers, which gives free hints and tips http://www.smallclaimscourtgenie.co.uk.
Thanks for your comments Paul. Although I studied the process of making a claim in the County Court for my MICM and I’m familiar with the Small Claims Court, I’ve thankfully never had to make a claim myself. However, I’m sure your site will come in useful for myself and other readers if we ever find ourselves in that position. 🙂