The Habits of Difficult Customers
April 9, 2005 (as amended)
(names removed to protect the guilty)

This table has been assembled from my experiences over recent years with various customers. I post it here for other business owners, in the hope that they may avoid what I did not. I made this because I realised I needed a strategy to cope with the various types of people described below: they are no doubt fairly widespread across the planet, so I need to learn to deal with them.

I think I am also noticing, that the length of time that elapses before a particular customer makes it onto this list, is some kind of indicator as to the length of time the business relationship is going to last. If a particular customer matches more than one item, that, of course also is a good indicator of the depth of the relationship, or rather, the lack of it.

type behaviours stink factor reason early warning signs responses
egg-sucker tries to tell me how to do my job and/or patronises me when I try and do it 40% demeaning, time-wasting pays no attention to my opinions; says "you're just the xxxxx guy, what do you know?" set the boundaries; demonstrate the unworkability of their ideas (if appropriate); request useful alternatives; explain technical challenges; explain where responsibility for what lies
tyre-kicker I talks about ordering, but doesn't order 20% time-wasting too many meetings, not enough cheques get the cash flowing early, to gain commitment and build trust; else, the Sin Bin
tyre-kicker II talks about lots of interesting things, sends some support jobs in preparation for some big and promising project, but doesn't ever actually order anything 30% time-wasting no purchases at all, despite a period of association wait for an order before doing any work; else, the Sin Bin
tyre-kicker III goes through a lengthy planning process, then walks away when it comes to ordering (free plan in hand) 50% time-wasting defers payment for time spent on planning until project completion ensure the customer is billed as the project proceeds for the R&D they use, and/or a deposit is paid; if unwilling, the Sin Bin
crazy tyre-kicker talks about ordering, pays a deposit, but strings out ordering seemingly forever 20% time-wasting, but at least I have some of the cash dithers with the contract; frets about payments and payment schedules insist on payment in advance and signed contracts; ensure quotations, proposals and contracts have expiry dates
puzzle-maker orders, but feeds details of the order one piece at a time through a variety of different communications channels, sometimes over a period of a week or more, sometimes contradicting each other, occasionally sending an update to the update before the blizzard is complete, requiring extensive deciphering and reassembly 30% time-wasting, brain-draining, error-prone the increasing use of multiple channels; no visible plan; changing specifications set the boundaries - reject all but certain types of update in almost all circumstances; explain why the use of multiple channels is bad; explain how changing the spec will cost them money
middle-earther I orders, but supplies unusable and/or incomplete raw materials, occasionally expecting repairs for free as "part of the service", occasionally proceeding to complain when said repairs are not as desired, despite no specification having been provided, and certainly never agreed upon prior to the order 40% time-wasting, impedes optimal performance, sometimes loss-making; see arm-twister supplies inappropriate raw materials immediately bounce the problem back to the customer without doing any work on it; insist on professional and complete raw materials; explain where responsibility for what lies
middle-earther II orders and expects immediate delivery 30% attempts to push in the queue; disrupts my workflow and my schedule; puts me in a hurry; error-prone previous similar demands set the boundaries - reject work submitted on short notice in almost all circumstances; explain why urgent work causes a problem
middle-earther III orders a skyscraper, insists on viewing work during construction, and then freaks out when on the first viewing, all they see is a big hole in the ground 30% fails to appreciate the planning and engineering involved in building such a hole a lack of understanding of skyscraper construction attempt to explain skyscraper construction prior to the first viewing; point out the marvels of the hole at the time
middle-earther IV orders a skyscraper, insists on blow-by-blow updates on construction, and then freaks out when they fail to understand the various setbacks and issues that inevitably arise 50% time-wasting, introduces needless pressure, causes Chinese Whispers when they bitch to their colleagues (about things they have no clue about, but think they do) micro-management - constant questions and interference in the project at hand tell them - I need some time to get this built. I will tell you when it is working.
middle-earther V demands timescales, despite numerous unknowns; later, any estimates given will be used as evidence of a broken "agreement" 50% there no logical justification for their belief that a timescale is possible - how long is a piece of string? I don't have "psychic" in my advertising literature. Their questions are stupid, any answer equally so. All this does is put me in a hurry; error-prone. previous similar demands; begins a sentence with "not to put too much pressure on you, but..." explain that timescales can only ever be approximate, due to the number of variables, and that while I can give an ESTIMATE, that's all it is, an estimate and may change as the details become clearer
middle-earther VI demands, due to their belief in voodoo computing, that all work be done twice, in two different ways, "just to make sure" 30% time-wasting. Yes, there are bugs, particularly with certain items of commercial software which cause anomalous behaviour, however these should be addressed as they arise, not in anticipation. previous similar demands; begins a sentence with "can you just..."; ends sentence with "...just so it's all tickety-boo". set the boundaries - reject demands for doubling up, explain the process for fault resolution
middle-earther VII has detailed plans of a skyscraper drawn up, is ready to order, and has a tight timescale - despite this, insists on a price for the next two or three skyscrapers 40% time-wasting, potentially loss-making (quoting on a skyscraper involves detailed planning. This will set back the construction of the first and most urgent skyscraper. Not only this, technologies may change in between now and then, disadvantaging one or both of us.) tries to cram three skyscrapers into one project; continuously adds new features to the specification for the first skyscraper, even while final negotiations for its price are occuring Resist attempts by the customer to bring unrelated work into the project. Defer these items for "stage 2" or "post-launch". Refuse to provide costings for the additional stages; offer a "rough idea" ONLY, include subject to change disclaimer. Explain that the planning involved will prevent the timescale for the first skyscraper being met. Explain that in order to provide a buffer against input cost fluctuations, I will significantly over-estimate the likely price.
middle-earther VIII orders extensive renovations to his skyscraper, however due to his ignorance of skyscraper design and usage, and his subsequent abuse of it, is surprised by the amount of time/money the renovations take 30% potentially loss-making (he might pressure me to discount) displays lack of knowledge about his skyscraper; does stupid things with it Always quote with the disclaimer "as long as there are no unforseen issues". Attempt to assess the job before quoting, charging if necessary - explain that no prior assessment may mean delays and/or cost overruns. If issues arise due to customer foolishness, point them out immediately, ensuring the customer understands this is his fault, and that it is going to delay the project and cost more money.
middle-earther IX accuses me of incompetence if I am unable to instantly fix any problem 40% time-wasting, can generate false impressions and inaccurate assessments is surprised when I say "I don't know"; shocked that the first thing I do is search the web for the answer Explain to them, there are billions of possible problems, my job is not to memorise billions of solutions to those problems, that is what Google is for. My job is to be able to identify the exact problem, find a solution that works and is compatible with the system, the business etc, and implement it.
middle-earther X accuses me of incompetence if their sales do not improve 70% time-wasting, can generate false impressions and inaccurate assessments, and lead to termination of my involvement in the project warns me sales are down, gives me sales pep talk, stresses that the company is very "results-driven" Explain to them, there is no direct connection between my work and your sales. My work makes your sales possible, however your sales are also dependent on many other factors, including the type of work I am doing, the way by which my work is integrated by you into your product offering, your promotion and delivery of the product, the actions of your competitors, and wider socioeconomic, geopolitical and natural processes that are beyond my control.

Suggest:

  • increasing the number of hours per week spent on their project
  • bringing in extra hands
  • ways of streamlining my service delivery
  • alternative performance measurements (such as number of completed todo items per week)
  • regular catch-up meeting to "maintain alignment"

Note: if the customer is unwilling to spend the money on extra hours/hands/equipment, this indicates that their actual commitment to achieving extra sales is less than their talk would suggest. They may be having funding problems, but I am not their bank, nor their investor, nor do I work for free, so it will need to be explained to them that they can only have what they can afford, and they should consider a staged or phased deployment, so they can pay for the work incrementally.
middle-earther XI insists they know the answer to the problem, when they clearly do not; threatens to find a new provider that will sell them the thing they think they need (but don't) 75% time-wasting, argument-generating, requires lots of thought, potentially loss-making listens, but does not hear; constantly reverts discussion back to his hobby-horse; demonstrates clear lack of knowledge; unwillingness to consider or learn about alternative solutions
  • clearly define the problem (insist the customer assists in this) - what are they trying to achieve? - what is the objective of this mission?
  • clearly define my suggested solution to the problem - the strategies
  • try and understand what is motivating the customer to see their solution as their correct one - why are they fixated on it? - what do they think they will get? - are they harbouring an assumption which is wrong?
  • describe the disparity between views (as if to a listener)
  • explore possible compromises:
    • is the customer's plan feasible? - are there any elements of the customer's plan which cannot work?
    • are there any elements of the customer's plan which are good?
    • is it possible to forge a plan that includes the good bits, leaves out the non-working bits, and gives them what they want?
    • work through the problem/solution statements - where do the objections lie?
    • draft a possible resolution strategy
middle-earther XII complains repeatedly about a problem, but during the course of troubleshooting, repeatedly fails to answer questions, follow procedures etc, thus preventing me from knowing the state of their system, or extent of remediation, and making it very difficult to help them 40% time-wasting, can generate false impressions and inaccurate assessments expects things to "just work", has inefficient methods and tools, buys bad advice, is in a mess Explain to them, if you would like your problem to be fixed, we need to go through it methodically and carefully, so I can understand it, and implement the fix correctly.
steaming psychotic for months, silently blames ourselves for an intermittent hardware fault, finally exploding and becoming extremely hostile 50% time-wasting, loss-making an abrupt and unexpected downturn in the quality of the relationship; calls for wholesale replacement of infrastructure automated monitoring systems; regular verbal checks - "everything OK?" - call the customer, if we don't hear from them for a while, to check
piss-taker I orders and receives, and then refuses to pay without a substantial discount 80% time-consuming, loss-making, deceitful weaselish behaviour; insists on discussing money in private the Sin Bin
piss-taker II orders and receives, and then disputes the order and demands a discount, or refuses to pay at all 80% time-consuming, loss-making, deceitful weaselish behaviour; insists on discussing money in private the Sin Bin
piss-taker III orders and receives, and then claims the work was expected to be done free, as part of a service previously provided and allegedly incomplete 80% time-consuming, loss-making, deceitful weaselish behaviour; insists on discussing money in private the Sin Bin
piss-taker IV orders and receives, and then claims the work is incomplete and/or unnecessary and/or overpriced 80% time-consuming, loss-making, deceitful weaselish behaviour; insists on discussing money in private the Sin Bin
piss-taker V orders and receives, defers payment until "next time", at which point they claim they have already paid 80% time-consuming, loss-making, deceitful weaselish behaviour; insists on discussing money in private the Sin Bin
piss-taker VI orders and partly receives, but then completes project themselves, thus reducing their costs, but also preventing me from recuperating mine 50% time-consuming, loss-making a propensity for hands-on activity; unwillingness to spend money ensure the customer is billed as the project proceeds for the R&D they use
piss-taker VII orders and partly receives, however they stall the project and prevent completion, thus forcing me to wait, before either convincing them to complete, or billing them for work they probably cannot use 30% time-consuming, loss-making unwillingness to spend money Ensure the customer is billed as the project proceeds for the R&D they use. They probably are having cash-flow problems so be gentle. Try and find a route to completion that costs a minimal amount of money. For good customers ONLY, offer to complete on credit ("finish now, pay later"), so they can benefit from the work and have it pay for itself.
backdoor-discount-seeker orders, but part-way through delivery adds a bunch of new work to the spec, hoping to "squeeze it in" to the current job and price 50% time-consuming, pressures me to extend a discount, potentially loss-making tightness with cash; starts to order new work with the phrase "as part of what you're doing already..."; hesitates/tries to avoid signing off on a written job specification politely refuse the offer to do free work; outline where my costs would be negatively affected; offer credit if appropriate; offer a token freebie as an appeaser; insist on a written, signed-off job spec
backdoor-credit-seeker orders and receives, and then makes payment conditional on the completion of additional work 60% time-consuming, deceitful, exposes me to their later default, forces me to extend credit, bullying weaselish behaviour; insists on discussing money in private refer them to the written job specification, then the Sin Bin
budget-wrecker orders and receives, but does not pay when they say they will 60% damages my cashflow; occasionally results in me breaking a promise to a third party, in consequence of the promise to me to pay being broken frets about payments and payment schedules; mentions other financial commitments credit-hold, then insist on payment in advance
late-payer orders and receives, but takes ages to pay 70% damages my cashflow; denies me investment opportunities; involves multiple time-consuming cost-incurring chase-ups previous late payments credit-hold, then COD, penalties (interest, late payment fees), then the Sin Bin
double-crosser orders and receives, but doesn't pay 100% time-consuming, loss-making; damages my cashflow; denies me investment opportunities; involves multiple time-consuming cost-incurring chase-ups pays no attention to the bill he's running up; earlier late payments credit-hold; then COD; penalties (interest, late payment fees, suspension and/or cancellation of services), then the Sin Bin
likely-to-default orders and receives, and then "loses" the invoice, or claims it was never sent, or claims the secretary deleted it, and/or requires multiple steps to obtain payment, and/or cannot be contacted regarding payment (with client/at lunch/not in today/on phone) 80% time-consuming, loss-making, deceitful weaselish behaviour; insists on discussing money in private the Sin Bin
departing-imminently is planning to no longer be a customer, for whatever reason (for example, the company is replacing us with another provider or an employee, or it is being sold, merging with another company, relocating, or going out of business) 0% time-consuming, loss-making the inexplicable cancelling of projects; the non-renewal of long-term contracts; the installation of site/network surveying software by a mystery third party, at the behest of the boss; the sudden appearance of a shredder in the office brace - recover/return all loaned property, clean desk/computer(s), straighten all accounting issues. When the news comes, clean remaining items, attempt to acquire redundant equipment at a low cost, and attempt to get some completed feedback forms. The customer's behaviour is acceptable, in that it's fair play to replace us, move, or indeed cease to exist - and even fair play to fail to tell us until the deal is done - but it may cause turbulence, none-the-less

The Sin Bin

This is where customers in need of attitude adjustment are sent. The Sin Bin is characterised by the following:

See also: /dev/null

Notes:

Common Excuses for Late or Non-Payment:

My Queries re: Late Payments: