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Immunizing your business against toxic customer relationships

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Big Data Evangelist, IBM

The customer is always right, even when some of them are totally unreasonable and, perhaps, a bit off their rocker.

When trying to grasp how the customer thinks and feels, you may run up against the perennial problem of difficult individuals. In other words, these are the customers who insist on engaging with you on terms that your people may consider awkward, irritating, irrational or flat-out rude.

These difficult customers come in many stubborn varieties. Some might imagine that your policies, as written, don't apply to them, hence that you should grant them special privileges and discounts unavailable to others. Some may be constantly complaining for no good reason at all, and threatening legal action if you don't kowtow to their petty demands. Some may always be letting their emotions and anxieties get the better of them, no matter how patient or accommodating you are. Still others may even seem to be lying to you or trying to manipulate you to an extent that goes beyond traditional "hard bargaining.”

Customer churn is not always a bad thing, especially when a specific relationship proves dysfunctional for your business. Customer relationship management (CRM) is a two-way street. Dissatisfied clients are often eager to "fire" you, and you should always keep the same option (vis-a-vis them) on the table. No, this is not a decision you take lightly. You should consider firing those who insist on engaging with you on terms that jeopardize your being able to meet your business objectives, and those who, if they stayed, might cause other customers to leave.

From a CRM standpoint, you should be defining the limited range of business-toxic customer journeys that might push you to this point. In order to avoid doing this in an arbitrary, emotion-driven fashion, you need to define these toxic journeys so that they can be applied consistently across customers, channels and touchpoints. And, in order to do that, you should be determining whether you have sufficient CRM data to drive those "last resort" decisions. That data, much of which will probably be in unstructured notes from the field (from salespeople, call-center agents, account managers and more), needs to be amenable to roll-up into a comprehensive narrative of the "toxicity" issues.

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This narrative may reveal many extenuating circumstances that would otherwise be overlooked. Sometimes, all you need, to salvage the relationship, is to view an individual in their full human context, not just as a customer of your particular company. As this recent article by Deloitte's John Lucker states, "factors such as life experiences, framing of situations, habits, self-control or lack thereof, social impacts and decision fatigue are examples of important components for determining what makes people behave as they do. In this manner, complex individual and market data can serve as the customer’s ‘window to the soul,’ but it may not always perfectly predict outcomes."

You should also consider the disgruntled customer in the full competitive context of the market you're in. The reason they've become difficult may be due to the fact that your company has become difficult to work with, both in absolute terms and relative to your competitors. The toxic customer, who may be badmouthing you right and left, may simply be holding you to a higher standard of customer service that you've consistently failed to meet. The fact that they're still your customer may have nothing to do with their satisfaction level, and everything to do with being "trapped" (for example, in a multi-year iron-clad contract) in a relationship with a difficult vendor.

And let's not forget the toxic social context that may be souring their opinion of you, regardless of how well, in an objective sense, you've been serving them. As the cited article states, "confusing the issue is that most consumers think they are rational. While they may research a purchase in detail before making it, in reality, a tangled web of correlations—along with a network of influencers, followers and transient leaders—often sways their behavior without their being aware of it."

In those contexts, individual customers may start to become hard to deal with simply because they've unconsciously absorbed the negative climate of opinion about your company. For example, the supposedly difficult customers may be clustered in particular demographics, industries or regions where, in the aggregate, you've neglected to sow positive sentiment within your CRM efforts. In that scenario, your social listening tools could help you sense the degree to which you're unfairly stigmatizing individual customers as difficult when the root cause is your own failed efforts to engage broader customer segments.

Once you've truly tuned into your customers' wavelength, it may be a sobering experience. Maybe they've been difficult with your people for a very good reason: you've never been good at listening.