Difficult customers create even more difficult situations for salespeople.
It’s critical to be nice. But all the while you’re thinking, Why is this customer being mean?
So what can you do when a customer is downright mean? Or a prospect is disrespectful?
Jeff Hoffman, sales author, expert and consultant, and CeCe Aparo, VP at Hoffman, dive deep into the difficult situations in Your Sales MBA Podcast “How to Handle Yourself When Your Customer is an A**hole.”
They offer practical solutions for salespeople, whether you’re dealing with a difficult prospect, a customer-temporarily-turned-jerk or a client who’s overstepped the boundary.
‘Why don’t they like me?’
Question: People have bad days, and it can really throw salespeople off when someone is downright rude, especially when you’ve been working with them for a while. How do salespeople handle a prospect or a customer who is downright rude?
Hoffman: If I could break down that question, it might sound more like, “Why don’t people like salespeople?”
And you’re right. This job is hard because we’re paid not on the yes. We’re paid on the “No.” “Yes” is the bonus for our job. No one’s getting paid to get meetings. You’re getting paid to get abused by people who won’t take your meeting!
That’s why this job is so hard. That doesn’t discount the fact that it still hurts. We’re still people. We still have feelings. It’s still hard to go to a job that people literally tell you to, “Get out,” “I don’t like you,” “I don’t trust you” or “I don’t believe you.” Or they’re just nasty, in general.
You can’t make nice, but you can be prepared
Question: So what should salespeople do about it?
Hoffman: You can’t just make people nice. So that’s not going to be your position. What you can do is a couple of things.
It makes a lot of sense knowing that no matter how carefully you marshal and plan your day, that around-the-corner, angry, unhappy prospects/customers could always reveal themselves. They often do because everybody has bad days and everybody has bad moments. And who in the worlds is easier to take it out on than the sales rep who just called you?
Always assume that when people are inappropriately angry or weird that this probably has nothing to do with you. You’re an easy person to blast it out at because you’re a salesperson.
Work with your energy levels
Question: It still happens. How can you be more prepared?
Hoffman: A couple of things you want to do to arm yourself a little better to this kind of feeling. Be really, really conscious of your own biorhythm – your own energy levels. When are you at your peak? When are you most vulnerable?
I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve always been more of a morning person. I get up very early and generally with tons of energy. This energy lasts well into lunch. But once I get to lunch, I tend to fall quickly. When I get to mid-afternoon, I am junk. I spend all my energy early.
So I make sure I coincide or select the sales activities that make the most sense for my energy levels. I am most capable of handling rejection from cold calling at the end of the day. Why the end of the day? Because when I have a lot of energy and I’m getting a lot of “nos,” it’s going to hurt. But when I’m getting a lot of “nos” at four o’clock in the afternoon and I’m an hour from driving home, and I’m already tired, but I’ve already had a decent morning, that’s when the difficult customer becomes less troubling to me.
For me, I almost always move those difficult situations, customers or prospects to the end. I generally front-load the day with excited, happy, enthusiastic buyers.
Heal end-of-the-deal issues
Aparo: There’s the other issue, too: The customer who’s at the end of the deal – who starts getting cranky with you. Or someone who you’ve been working with for two years and sends you a nasty message. You run into them, too.
Hoffman: That’s a little more tricky. The biggest resistance we get from prospects and customers are in the bookends of a deal – the very beginning and very end. At the beginning, it’s because any revelation the prospect has about interest or urgency is probably going to be stifled. That prospect is going to be deeply afraid that if they say, “I’m interested. I’m curious,” the sales rep will start a sales process and bug the hell out of me when I’m really just starting. So there’s a lot of resistance for prospects early.
But there’s equal amount of resistance from people you’re working with later or even existing customers at the end of the deal. Why? Because now this conversation is just leading to, “I have to make this decision to buy or not.” And you can think, Well, what’s the big deal? They did all their research. They did all their homework. Why is that such an emotionally charged moment that they’re going to be resistant to me?
Many won’t. But some will. And some will for very real reasons.
Customers react to their embarrassment
Question: What kind of “real reasons?”
Hoffman: Let’s say they don’t want to buy. If it’s late in the process, and they’ve said they don’t want to buy, then the question is: Why hadn’t they told me this a month ago? Why are they still going through procurement? Why are they still doing the second trial?
There are a host of answers for it. But my guess is that answers are a poor reflection on your customer, not you. Maybe your customer was never really authorized to search for this. Or maybe your customer didn’t realize that another group already made a similar purchase and they were going to take advantage of that situation. Or maybe that customer didn’t know that their budget had been slashed.
All of these things would reveal that they’d made a mistake. And customers do not like telling salespeople that they made mistakes.
So now this customer has realized: This work hasn’t only wasted my time, but the time of this rep. And over the last three weeks, I have not been honest with this rep. In fact, I’ve been pretending I’m going to buy because I’ve been kind of embarrassed with this and I didn’t want to bring it up. But now the rep is asking me for the business, asking me to sign the order, which I can’t do.
You’d think that this would lead the prospect to say, “Hey, I screwed up. I should’ve told you we couldn’t do this.”
Customers will pivot
Question: So why don’t they?
Hoffman: A customer isn’t going to use those words with you. Instead, when people are caught in a lie, and have no good way out of it, they pivot that anger toward themselves to the person they’re lying to.
If that person is in sales, they’re even quicker to this kind of anger!
So take comfort. This is a natural part of sales negotiation. It’s called impasse. It’s real. This thing is moving, moving, moving … then all of a sudden, it’s like it hits an immovable object. Knowing that is an inevitable part of this process.
Stop your worry about anger
Question: Is there any way salespeople can stop themselves from worrying about how to handle the “around-the-corner” mean customer?
Hoffman: Yes. Ask yourself: What would be the indication and opportunity that this prospect or customer might get mad at me later? That will at least get you to ask the right questions in the middle of the deal to find out that he doesn’t really have any budget. Forget the anger. You’ll save a month of wasting time on sales that aren’t going to happen anyway.
Aparo: That reminds of advice you gave me many years ago. It might have even been about something unrelated to sales. It was about a personal issue, but it fits perfectly here: That sounds like a ‘them problem,’ not a ‘you problem.‘ When people are angry, it’s not about something you did. Nine times out of ten, it’s about something that’s going on in their life at that moment. Not anything the salesperson did wrong. And it’s a mindset we should all adopt.
Let angry customers vent
Question: What can you do for an angry customer, even when it’s a ‘them problem’?
Hoffman: The expression we use a lot, and we encourage the people we work with to embrace, is Everyone wants to be heard. Whether it’s happy thoughts or angry thoughts. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be heard.
So the best way to deal with someone who wants to vent an emotional issue toward you is to listen. Not to judge. Not to wonder how it affects you. Not to wonder what you did to cause it.
And, then still, not to take some of that anger with you and share it with the poor, unfortunate soul you meet in ten minutes. And that’s very likely why you’re getting some anger from this customer. He may have had a bad experience with another person three minutes before your call.
Instead of trying to figure out how this impacts you, figure out how this anger is impacting them.
If people believe they’ve been heard, their emotional intensity will drop. And their anger will drop if they believe they’ve been heard.
Don’t fix the problem too quickly
Question: Any dangers to letting them vent?
Hoffman: Yes, beware of this one. If you are quick to fix a problem before that problem has been vented, and gets the oxygen it needs to heal, then all you’ll do is have the customer swallow the anger. And then it will reveal itself later in a really weird place because you can’t stifle anger very long.
To say or not to say?
Question: What’s the one phrase salespeople should have at their disposal, ready to use on the phone, if they have an angry customer?
Hoffman: It’s actually the opposite. It’s about what you do NOT want to say. When a customer – or frankly anyone in your life – is telling you they’re upset, don’t interrupt them. And the following things are considered interruptions:
- Yes …
- Oh, I see
- I understand why you’d feel that way
All of those little utterances while they’re talking will make them insane! Their anger will continue to be stoked.
Silence is often a savior
Question: Then what can you do to calm the situation?
Hoffman: If you want that anger to come down to displeasure, which is a lot easier to manage, let them get it out without anything from you.
So what I always advise when you get an angry customer on the phone, is first do – not say – something. That is, use your index finger to hit the “mute” button on your phone so you don’t say all those things you shouldn’t.
All you’re going to do is shut up!
Let them go through ranting stages
Question: Really, that works?
Hoffman: Let me tell you what’s going to happen with angry people. They’re going to rant for a while about everything that has them upset, how it all makes them look, how it affects those they work with or for and how they’ll feel. But as they go on, guess what happens to their pitch, volume and intensity? As you meet each of their “buckets” of sentences with silence, what do you think happens to the rant?
Aparo: Each time, their rant gets a little softer. The words get a little nicer. They aren’t as aggressive as they were in the previous “bucket.”
Hoffman: That’s right. Anger and rage require energy. And if you stay silent, you make the customer spend it early.
In the first “bucket,” customers tend to rant about how they’re angry at the whole situation. By the second “bucket,” they might pinpoint one specific issue – perhaps the price. By the third “bucket,” they likely talk about how it makes them look or feel – perhaps they’re bothered they have to justify the price to the boss, which will make their lives harder.
So guess what happened? The customer was able to vent and by the third “bucket,” you hear why they’re really upset.
So you can use the silence, not the words, to right that ship. The ship that really needs to be right.
One tactic to increase sales now
Question: Now that we know better how to deal with upset customers, what’s one thing salespeople can do to increase sales?
Hoffman: Find a customer you closed last quarter and haven’t spoken to since they bought or ordered. Call and ask for a conversation based on one question.
Say, “I want to thank you for your business, but there’s something that’s been bothering me and I wanted to ask about you about it, if you don’t mind. I want to get better at sales, and who better to ask than people who’ve bought from me. Can you tell me one thing I did that I actually screwed up?”
Learn from what went wrong
Question: But if they bought from you, you must’ve done everything right. Right?
Hoffman: If you ask that one question to your existing customers, you’ll find out more about what you’re doing wrong than anyone else. Don’t ask people who haven’t bought from you why they didn’t buy from you. That’s like asking someone who just broke up with you, “Why?”
Aparo: They’ll say, “It’s not you, It’s me.” Right!
Hoffman: What else are you going to hear?
So saying, “You didn’t take my meeting and my boss wants to know why,” isn’t going to give you an answer you can use.
But if you ask a sold customer for something you did wrong, something you overlooked, think of the power you’re giving. Think of the vulnerability you’re putting out there.
Because you ask customers that, you tell them, “I trust you. I want to be a better salesperson and I trust you with my career.” Could that be a more generous question?
And what you hear from that is exactly what you stink at! So listen with big ears, and I think you’re going to get an immediate improvement from it.