Managing Customers From Hell: How to Keep Your Nose Clean!

By Andrew J. Birol, President, Birol Growth Consulting, Inc.

Ask anyone who sells or serves customers about his buyer from hell and you are sure to get a great example. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

  • The client who asked me to submit a fake (and higher) bid so that his would win.
  • The owner who asked to buy 20 minutes of my time at his place at 5:30 AM.
  • The entrepreneur who reneged on a commitment and then asked me to serve as a reference for him.

War stories aside, I believe clients from hell are not born, they are made--too often by those who serve them. While every customer deserves full service and occasional schmoozing, there is a point of diminishing returns, when more is not better even for the customer. For example, how often is any customer satisfied after telling you that 100% of his project's success rests in your hands?

Unfortunately, too many sales and service people feel secure by meeting every want and need of their customers. They tell their clients, “Just tell me whatever you need,” and sure enough, customers will respond with new requests well beyond what they paid for. Left unmanaged, customers will stop asking for inches and demand miles.

What is a better idea? Proactively manage your customers and clients. Delight them within boundaries that are appropriate, constructive, and mutually profitable. Don't lead them into the temptation of exploiting you or your business. In these times of stress, scarcity, and pain, it can be hard to decide which requests are reasonable and which are not. Saying no can mean saying goodbye, but saying yes can be unprofitable and even demeaning. While every business and relationship has its own particulars, here are some basic rules for managing clients.

  • Meet reasonable client requests. Certain basics are non-negotiable. Sadly, they go unmet by many providers and may cause drastic consequences.
    • Meet every mutually agreed-upon expectation you set. Agree on promises and keep the ones you make. Nothing is more common than a customer saying, “I thought you were going to do that.” This is the sales or service person's fault for not getting clear agreement up front.
    • Keep your clients informed. Tell them what you are doing, the results of your actions, and how they must respond. Determine how they prefer to hear from you and contact them as frequently as they prefer. My rule of thumb is to communicate with each of my active clients weekly.
    • Redefine your agreement when necessary. Let’s face it, stuff happens. When it does, agree with your customer on her desired outcome and fine-tune your agreement fairly to ensure your mutual success. Often, a relationship is enhanced because of unforeseen circumstances or problems. If the problem is your fault, fix it without being asked. A damaged customer repaired is always a better customer.
  • Head off unreasonable client requests. Expect customers to test your limits. When they do, know what your limits are. Here are a few requests that every sales and service provider should decline. Just say no to customers whose demands:
    • Are more than you agreed to. Be clear as to what you are providing and what you are not. Put the key terms in writing and expect your customer to exercise good business judgment. If you say no, mean no; often your clients will respect you more for doing so. If you choose to over-deliver, make it clear that you are and explain why you are doing so. Customers cannot value what they don’t understand and usually don’t value what they get for free.
    • Will jeopardize your business or reputation. No customer is worth more than who you are and what you stand for. They either have no ethics or really believe that your integrity is for sale. Never compromise, regardless of your risk or your reward.
    • Are inconsistent with the normal outcome of using your products or services. I am always amazed at how some sales people just can't say no. If your customer asks for something outside of your Best and Highest Use®, and it is not something you should learn to do, saying yes is destructive. Your business cannot afford the distraction, and there are others out there who can serve the customer better.
  • Handle unreasonable requests with tact and confidence. So, when you are given an order you cannot accept, what do you do? Here are four key steps.
    • Reread your agreement and decide, from your client's perspective, whether you should comply. The benefit of the doubt should go to the client. Next time, be clearer.
    • If the demand is unacceptable, ask your client to explain his reason for the request.
    • Propose a reasonable solution that includes a balanced commitment by both parties.
    • Agree on the solution or refuse the request.

Achieving partnership status with your customers or clients is earned through trust, empathy, and consistency. If you have built this together, only miscommunication or the lack of communication will put you at odds. Stand up to your clients and walk away when you can’t. If you really want to ensure you never create a customer from hell, take this final step: ask your own suppliers what kind of a client you are. If they imply that you are their client from hell, then either you have nothing to complain about or you have got your own work cut out for you! Regardless, walk away. Life is too short to stay in bad relationships, particularly if you have helped create them.

Articles by Birol Growth Consulting are © copyrighted and all rights are reserved. However, articles may be reprinted with prior written consent if attribution is included as follows:

© Copyrighted by Andrew J. Birol, President of Birol Growth Consulting, who helps owners grow their businesses by growing their Best and Highest Use ®. Andy can be reached at (412) 973-2080 , by email at, or on the web at

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