How Salespeople can avoid “Customers from Hell”
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How Salespeople can avoid “Customers from Hell”

Ever have a “Customer From Hell”? You know, the kind who constantly pesters you — often unpleasantly — for additional service that wasn’t in the original deal, or attention to issues that they consider life-or-death but you know not to be serious at all?

When you have a customer like that, the conventional wisdom is that you should “fire” them – get them off your books so you can turn your attention elsewhere.

That’s sometimes necessary. But what if you had an assessment methodology that enabled you to detect troublesome prospects before you sign a deal — and a method for handling such folks?

3 kinds of trouble

Research from Hanken School of Economics in Finland gives us a framework for assessing customer expectations, the first part of the problem.

The Hanken study consisted of interviews with B2B vendors who were asked dozens of questions about their interactions with customers. What emerged from the answers was a set of three problematic customer expectations. The researchers called these:

Fuzzy expectations.

These occur when buyers don’t have a clear understanding of what they want from the seller. Your job is to focus these expectations before proceeding.

Implicit expectations.

These are expectations that the buyer has, but for some reason doesn’t overtly tell the seller about. Your job is to surface these expectations by asking probing questions.

Unrealistic expectations.

These are buyer expectations that can’t be fulfilled without the seller’s devoting an unreasonable amount of time and energy to the customer. Your job is to calibrate these expectations by explaining to the buyer what you can, and can’t, do for them, and what it will take for the sale to work for both parties.

Reverse cold feet

OK, so you’ve identified a prospect’s skewed expectations. The second part of the problem is what to do now. Let’s look at a technique known as Reverse Cold Feet.

What’s that? Well, you know what it’s like when buyers get cold feet. At the last minute they get scared and slam on the brakes. You, the seller, can also get cold feet if the deal isn’t right. It doesn’t necessarily mean walking away. It means calling a time out. You’re saying you won’t go forward until you’ve pinned down expectations so that you and the buyer share them.

Here are the steps of the Reverse Cold Feet technique:

  1. If you feel expectations are out of whack, call a time out.
  2. Frame your concern around making the buyer a success.
  3. Create a project plan that spells out what you expect from the buyer, and what the buyer can expect from you
  4. Get the buyer to sign off on these commitments.

Let’s see how you could use this approach with a difficult prospect we’ll call Bob.

Making it work

You’ve met a couple of times with Bob, who insists that his current vendor “misses deadlines” and is “uncooperative” and “unresponsive.” You find that surprising. You know this competitor, and they’re top-notch. The more Bob talks, the more you get the impression that he, not the vendor, is the problem. And his unreasonable expectations no doubt played a part in generating his litany of complaints.

The key to your deal is that Bob and his team will have to devote considerable resources to making it work. It has to be a team project and not all on you. Expectations have to be aligned on this point.

So you say something like, “Let’s hold up for a minute. I’m interested in working with you and I think we can help. But I want to make sure that you’re going to get what you need.”

Bob is taken aback.  “You don’t want my business?”

“Of course I do,” you say. “But there’s a lot riding on this and I want to make sure the project is a success.”

“So what’s the problem?” Bob asks.

“I’ve done many similar projects, and I’ve found that communication and cooperation are key to making the partnership work,” you say. The subtext: Bob clearly did not communicate and cooperate with the vendor he wants to replace. If he has implicit expectations that he won’t have to this time either, the deal is going to fail.

But Bob plays along, saying, “I assure you that we’ll cooperate.”

The nitty-gritty

Sure, this sounds great. But you need to pin Bob down so his expectations for working with you are neither fuzzy nor unrealistic.

So you say, “Let’s get specific about what that means. You’ll need to appoint a full-time project manager who’ll be the point person for all communication. Together, we’ll create a detailed plan and timeline with clear accountabilities. We’ll meet with the project manager and other key team members once a week for project reviews. If the project gets off track, we’ll call a time out, assess obstacles, remove them, and get back on track. Can you commit to that?”

These are very clear expectations indeed. Will Bob consider that you’re being too demanding, and walk away? Not if he’s a prospect worth having.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Managing Expectations With Unrealistic Customers: The Reverse Cold Feet Technique.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research study: Ojasalo, J. (2001). Managing customer expectations in professional services. Managing Service Quality, 11, 3, 200-212.


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