"Customers from Hell" and the #1 business fundamental

Jim Blasingame

“This is for one of those customers from hell.”

That’s what a small business owner said to me during one of my road trips across the country to check on how things are going out on Main Street.

“Ann” was responding to my query about her business. Her full answer was closer to, “Business has been good. But now I’ve got to spend most of the day dealing with this customer from hell.”

Turns out, what caused this customer’s alleged domicile to be mentioned was because they required a lot of extra attention - they wanted things the way they wanted them. Like Ann, you might be surprised at my response, which is our next “Business Fundamental.”

“You should never have a customer from hell.”

Before you start yelling that you want to introduce me to some of your customers who surely are kin to Ann’s, let me tell you a story.

When I was a pup salesman working my way through college in big-ticket retail, I quickly learned that all customers fall along a continuum between heavenly and, like the one Ann was fuming about, hellish. Back then, my initial and ignorant reaction was that I didn’t like customers on the latter end of that spectrum and intended to avoid them. But there’s an amazing philosophical maturity and sociological clarity that manifests when a salesman is paid, as I was then, on commission (read: no sale, no food). It makes you assume a heightened pragmatism about the value of doing business with every person on the customer continuum, not just the easy ones.

Perfecting this perspective over time, I created, Blasingame’s Law of Difficult Customers: “Understanding what troubles or motivates difficult customers, serving them within an inch of their lives, and charging for that level of service, may well produce your most profitable relationships.”

Additionally, I created the Twin Pillars of this Law. 

Pillar One: Upon fulfilling this Law with such a customer, most will give you their abiding business on the way to becoming a customer for life. And here’s a bonus you probably didn’t see coming; “Old Grumpy Pants” will become your most valuable referral source when his friends realize, “If she can make HIM happy ...” You get the picture.

Pillar Two: Try to think of a customer’s hellish behavior as a request for customization, not excessive demands. Notice earlier I mentioned there were things Ann’s customer wanted. Customers make purchasing decisions along the Need/Want Continuum: On one end is what they need (essentially, commodities), and on the other end is what they want (customization). They won’t pay one cent more than the established price for a commodity. But since what they want is anywhere from a little bit more to everything, this must be delivered at a premium price.

This isn’t about the 19th century “baker’s dozen,” or the 20th century’s “added value.” This isn’t even about fast-evolving Age of the Customer expectations. This is a fundamental equation inside the Difficult Customer Law that’s as timeless as it is non-negotiable: “When customers want and ask you to deliver more, they must expect to pay more. When your business responds to that request and delivers more, you must charge more.” From 2019BC Babylon to 2019AD Sheboygan, when this equation breaks down, either the customer is saying I don’t care about your business’s sustainability, or you are.

Sadly, when I went back to that town the next year, Ann’s business was gone. Way too many small businesses don’t survive because they fail to calculate the right answer to the extreme customer service excellence equation. Good for you if you’re committed to customer service excellence. But shame on you if you put your business in jeopardy by not charging customers what their level of service requires, whether it’s delivered to a customer who’s an angel, or one from that other place.

This will be on the test: If your business is struggling, it’s probably not because customers don’t want what you sell, but rather you aren’t correctly calculating and charging the answer to the fundamental equation.

Write this on a rock ... Charging customers for delivering what they want is the #1 Business Fundamental. Fail this math test at your peril.

Jim Blasingame is the author of The 3rd Ingredient, the Journey of Analog Ethics into the World of Digital Fear and Greed.

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