|Getting Rid of Your Worst Customer|
Run, don't walk from complainers asap!
Did you ever get a request for a quote, or otherwise have contact with someone who you "felt" was going to be a PITA, then against your better instincts took them on as a customers?
I recently replied to a post by someone looking for help with an ecommerce site. After exchanging a few emails with this person, and spending nearly two hours showing them what I could do for them, I realized they were going to be "difficult" to work with, and decided to simply tell them I was now unavailable when they finally decided they would like to hire me.
A week or so later, the guy contacted me again, and against my better judgement, I took a deposit and began working on his site. Sure enough, at every turn, he seemed to be dissatisifed with every aspect of the work, and every aspect of the ecommerce software.
Not only had I fully disclosed what software I would be using, but also encouraged the customer to try the free demo himself, (which he did), and then I setup a second free demo site to show him various functions of the software. The customer had (2) "free" chances to see the software in action without committing to it or spending any money to register it.
To make a long story short -- the customer had several weeks to evaluate the software platform, contact the developers and sales staff, and see a sample of his own data in use on the platform, and made the educated decision to use it.
Sure enough, as I began to work, the customer found "problems" with each click of his mouse -- and tried to convince me how he knew how it "should work" and that he would convince the developers to fix their software so it would work his way, (note: the ecomm company has 10,000 plus stores operating on the platform and has been in business for years, but this customer wanted code level changes made to fit his idea of how it should work).
Ok.. not so short of a story... the customer had me redesign the store (4) times -- then went into the back-end and "tweaked" the design himself, throwing everything off and asked me to fix it again. After uploading 100+ products, (descriptions, prices, SKUs, photos, etc), and assigning them into the dozen or so category pages, and otherwise building out the databases), the customer wasn't happy with how the products were displayed... Again, I re-did the design, made custom changes at his request, and otherwise tried to satisfy someone who obviously would never be satisfied.
The final straw was when the customer began telling me to add functionality parts of the site, and although he didn't have the ability to do it himself, began telling me "this should only take a few minutes", and complaining when I told him his idea of how it should work were not like any of the other 10,000+ stores that run the software, or any store I've ever built. I finally told him, it was obvious he would never be satisfied and I could no longer deal with his irrational requests.
They say hindsight is 20/20... It is. I remember what a friend who is a General Contractor (someone who does construction work) told me; If you get a lead and go to discuss work with a potential customer and they tell you about the last few contractors they had problems with, run, don't walk away from the job as fast as you can.
This "Worst Customer" had told me about the four ecommerce platforms he had been through in the past couple years, and complained about each one BEFORE I ever did business with him. He complained about his current platform and the developers he was currently working with, (I had even told him "it looks like the store is complete and seems to work pretty well", and suggested he see if they could work with him to get what he felt was lacking).
End of story: I told him I could no longer work on his site.
If I tell you we exchanged 180+ emails during the development, and that I redid each aspect of the job (4) times, and in the span of 6-8 weeks, I collected a total of $1500, would you blame me for "firing" the worst customer I've ever had?
Wow! Its' like reading my own biography.
I am about to launch a site that is very similar, with a client that is very similar. Ecommerce, he was "about 6 weeks into a bad relationship with another company" when he fired them. I don't know why it did not hit me then. But for some reason, I moved ahead with the project thinking it was a simple, 3rd party cart install with some skin modifications.
That's when the scope-creep began. He needed a highly, I mean HIGHLY customized checkout process. What I came to find out is that he had a competitor website that he liked, and wanted this to work like, look like, and act like, that site. He would send emails that would say "I need to have the front page look like this" and would email me hand written designs that he'd scanned, etc. He would even put in little "hacker-proof" images like his competitor, even though he really didn't understand where things like that came from.
unfortunately, the contract was sufficiently vague in a couple of critical areas, to the extent that I was stuck trying to deliver what he wanted. But the scope creep delayed the project numerous times, and he finally threatened to sue me (and even threatened to sue me personally, behind the corporate veil)
It's cost me more in subbed out programming than I will make. But, if there is a silver lining, I will have learned some extremely valuable lessons about defining scope (things I thought I already knew, but #*$!) and I will really have a killer portfolio site. That's the inly thing that is keeping me going is that this will be a monster website when launched.
However, when we do launch, I will draft a certificate of satisfaction to have him sign, and then refuse to work with him on any additional modifications. I will not work with someone who threatens to take my house.
We've had lots of customers/clients like that! Of course, each time we took them on, we thought "This time will be different." But you know what? It almost NEVER is different. Most likely, your gut feeling for a PITA customer/client is right, and you should go with that feeling.
Yeah, I've been pretty good the last couple years with the PITA radar... I usually send them off with a friendly email, or direct them to a DIY solution, but I had open time and figured "how bad could he be?"... now I know.
Signs of a PITA customer:
1. PITA tells you last 2-3 people they hired were unprofessional, incapable, or other deragatory references. Worse: they tell you how they sued the last person.
2. You offer exactly what they say they are looking for, have time to start right away, and meet their price point but they tell you "we are talking to a few other people" and don't want to commit. As soon as you get busy on something else they call and want to "get going right away". Worse: they "need to" get started immediately need to get it completed ASAP!
3. They describe everything as "really simple to do" and "should only take a few minutes"... yet they don't know how to do it themselves. Worse: they claim they do know how, just don't have time.
|They say hindsight is 20/20 |
Sounds like from your post that your "front sight" was working to, it sounds like you saw this coming and kept avoiding the "danger, bridge out" signs coming. I can't say I haven't done this myself from time to time, but Asia is dead on, it is almost NEVER different. I have learned my lesson and cut all hard to deal with people loose on the phone in most cases before I even have to waste time meeting with them.
I have posted this elsewhere, but if I sense that they might be difficult to work with on the phone I will ask them to rough out the project for me. Once they do I throw out a [high] quote and wait to hear their body hitting the floor on the other side. If they are a difficult to please client I almost always hear the body drop, then I smile and pat myself on the back for saving some aspirin.
This post was a Featured Home Page discussion back in 96...the more things change, the more they stay the same!
Not nitpicking, but the thread appears to be from last year, (June 24, 2006). But the facts are still the same.
Interesting though... I was doing some reading on the web about "worst customer" stories. It seems big business has gotten a handle on it, and has some interesting tactics to turn away "bad customers" (and reward good ones).
It seems major retailers, credit card companies and others who have extensive data to mine have been applying "cherry picking" marketing techniques to turn away undesirable clients and retain "good customers".
One report told of how a major credit card company has their customer service reps "rate" calls from customers -- frequent complainers get one grade, and "need some information please" type of customers another. Then they apply it to their call center answering system --- constant complainers get longer wait times... (Maybe in hopes they'll just abandon the call or switch to another credit card).
A grocery store chain stopped adverting "loss leaders" in newspapers and instead started a loyalty card program. Every customer could get a card, and the checkout data was mined. Customers who only bought low-priced in-store specials and did not purchase a certain level of regular priced goods were sent different direct mail coupons than "good customers".
Other examples are retailers who track returns, "price match" refunds and rebate users. They then share the data with other retailers. Customers who are frequent returners and request price match refunds are treated differently than those who never show up in the data.
Next time you think about complaining to a retailer, a cell phone provider, a cable company, or other large scale business you might need to decide if the call is worth it.
|Next time you think about complaining to a retailer, a cell phone provider, a cable company, or other large scale business you might need to decide if the call is worth it. |
If you are a complainer or cheap skate, not to worry. I am sure the government will weigh in at some point and make this a protected class and mandate with some stupid law that all businesses will have to take 15% of bad customers from this class each year to keep their license to do business from the government regardless of the profit loss to the business. After all this group needs a helping hand, or maybe a few dozen of them since they keep alienating them at such a high rate :)
Do you guys find that keeping your rates up scares away some of the potentially bad clients, and attracts the better clients? (assuming of course, that you have the skills and knowledge to justify your rates). It seems to me that bottom-feeding developers will attract bottom-feeding clients.
I had a potential client who was looking to make some changes to a recently developed site. This client exhibited one of the warning signs -- she said she had been "dumped" by her previous web designer -- and after speaking with her for a few minutes, I realized why. The quote I gave her was not particularly high, but I padded it a little because I knew that she was going to be difficult to work with. My question is this: When is the best time to throw out a price range as a litmus test to the client? I don't want to spend a lot of time dealing with someone who wants to pay me $800 for $3000 worth of work.
|Do you guys find that keeping your rates up scares away some of the potentially bad clients |
Absolutely! I have found time and again that the people willing to pay the least want the most and can be some of the most difficult to work with. Now to be fair I have had some low paying clients that were really great to work with, they were easy to work with, paid on time, and didn't ask for the moon.
|This client exhibited one of the warning signs -- she said she had been "dumped" by her previous web designer |
Yep, I would definitely call that a warning sign. I would be curious what other "signs" are as well. I figure you can't ever spot these people too far in advance.
|I don't want to spend a lot of time dealing with someone who wants to pay me $800 for $3000 worth of work. |
I agree, I try to do this on the first phone call with the person. I have a healthy discussion about what they want and then give a ball park price that I know is a bit high just to test the water. If they don't flinch I will invest in a first meeting, if they go silent on me then I offer to recommend someone else that may be able to help them and then turn them over to my competitor ;)
As an artist I encounter lots of PITA clients. As mentioned if you follow your instincts and gut feeling you can usually avoid them. The warning signs in my field are:
- convoluted or extensive instructions of what they want: - if they send you a scan of their instructions or rough ideas take a look at the way it was written / put together. Does it look like a 7 year old or the Zodiac Killer is behind it?
- do they understand what you actually do / offer? You offer apples (caricatures), but they expect oranges (portraits).
- do they need the project done asap...yet have wasted weeks emailing you with stupid questions.
- do they understand that they are not your sole customer
I recently had a customer who decided his caricature looked nothing like him and demanded it be redone. We went back and forth and he came to the conclusion...well it does look like me, but the eyes are wrong. The eyes were redone several times for him - each time he was unhappy. I finally crop out the eyes from the photo provided and PhotoShop them into the art:
Those are your actual eyes so it will be hard to make further improvements - without getting into photography or portrait art ...we just offer caricature art. Let me know.
[edited by: ExaggerArt at 12:14 am (utc) on Dec. 21, 2007]
|Yep, I would definitely call that a warning sign. I would be curious what other "signs" are as well. |
For one thing, although she was clearly clueless about web dev, she had opinions on how long certain things should take and how much they should cost. And she casually mentioned a couple times that she knows *other* people that do this kind of work.
There have been a couple clients that I have spent too much time on trying to reel in, and in the end it isn't worth it. Either the client is ready to get down to work, or they aren't.
Fortune Hunter, I like your technique of testing the waters in the initial conversation. However, the caveat to that is that you want to make sure that the prospective client knows that number is only an estimate and not a quote.
ExaggerArt: Oh yeah, she also wanted to know how soon I could get it done!
I know exactly how you feel, I have had 2 customers and an ex-boss like that. The know it alls are impossible to work with. But if you dont kiss tehir butts, they call their credit card company and cancel the transaction and there is nothing I can do to get that money I worked so hard for.
Yep in my line of work I get people who start with a question about X in teh most vague terms, you know they are trying to trap you, they think they are being clever but Ive seen this a million times.
Soooooo I let them run and give them the answers they expect then they spring the big one you can almost see them wriggle with delight.
Then its (from me) 'I have no idea why they didnt do X but if youd like to know the answer please put your question into writing'
Then I wriggle (real cute wriggle too) with delight knowing that I will never hear from them again.
|prospective client knows that number is only an estimate and not a quote. |
I should have clarified that I offer a range on the phone as a "ball park" of what they are probably looking at. Prospects that have money and know what they are doing might say that seems a little high, but will typically choose to meet. Those that have no idea and will end up being PITA clients typically collapse on the floor or respond with some well thought out comment like..."How much is did you say!?!?, that would come straight off my profits!" Dead giveaway to walk away and find more fertile ground.
Some of them come to us with some pretty far fetched fantasies about how things should be done.
Our weeding process starts early.
We have general "starting-at-prices" onsite, so the field is narrowed greatly. (gets rid of most who may not be serious, really)
The potential client pretty much has an idea of the cost at the start, so no one around here has to listen to any "guffahs" over the phone.
Secondly, they have only so many days to request changes after the project is completed. After that, it becomes a *pay-per-instance charge, payable in advance (of course)
If they want to be a PITA, then they'll certainly be paying for it.
65% of those who look at our terms just walk the other way. The other 35% are happy to get it done, and 18% of those are recurring monthly managed. It works out well, at least for us.
The quality client pays out higher dividends in the long run. And with that said, I would choose quality over quantity any day of the week.
|The quality client pays out higher dividends in the long run. |
I agree 110%. I would much rather have a handful of high paying complex projects with ongoing maintenance and appreciation for the service I bring then more money made through a bunch of little sites by people that look to cut you out of the equation at every step, take forever to pay you, and complain constantly about how much this is costing them.
It seems the thread has taken a "money" twist. That was never my intent. I've had dozens of customers with small jobs, that didn't earn me much, but -- they were a PLEASURE not a PITA to work with.
Like any other profession, if you don't enjoy the work, the money really doesn't make up for it.
The case with PITA customers is that they drain the pleasure from what is otherwise a creative, provocative, challenging and enjoyable profession.
I would rather dig a ditch for minimum wage for someone that said, "Thanks, that's a great ditch!", than take on a PITA web job at any price.
|It seems the thread has taken a "money" twist. That was never my intent. I've had dozens of customers with small jobs, that didn't earn me much, but -- they were a PLEASURE not a PITA to work with. |
Yes, very good point, I should have said something like that in my above post. I have also had small clients that were not only fun to work with but very appreciative of what I did for them. They paid quickly and while I didn't make a lot of money on them they were easy and the work was interesting.
Unfortunately the opposite is true more times than I would care to admit where the small projects are also PITA clients. To date (fingers crossed) I have never had a mid size or large client that was a PITA, but they all paid considerably better.
|Those are your actual eyes so it will be hard to make further improvements - without getting into photography or portrait art ...we just offer caricature art. Let me know. |
Customers are a funny thing. In our b&m store there have been some customers who we knew would be PITA's as soon as they entered the door who started out being some of the worst people we had to deal with, but then gradually changed into decent customers. I think some of them were testing our ability to deal with all kinds of crazy b.s. Not sure why, but it's the only explanation I can come up with for some of the crazaziness.
That said, most people I run into who come across as PITA's never change. One customer realized after a few calls that out of the half-dozen or so people in customer service, only one was willing to deal with him. He actually commented on it - "Everyone always says I'll have to call back when you're there. They don't want to talk to me, do they?" Amazing.
I accepted a job a few months ago for someone who came from a printer and photographer's background who couldn't get it through his head that designing a web site with SEO in mind was totally different than printed material and spent most of my time explaining why his method wouldn't work.
He claimed to know how to design a web page but his idea of making frames around images was with using multiple nested table cells and couldn't understand why I refused to frame images in that way.
He offered very little suggestions for the layout and instead told me to utilize my creativity but then was never satisfied with my designs so I was constantly redoing everything multiple time.
And to top that off he said he wouldn't have the original images until just before the site needed to be online and so expected me to set up the site with multiple temporary framed images that would have to be switched later. Thankfully I had written into the agreement any editing of images other than resizing would incur extra charges.
He would also pepper his emails with unrelated chit chat (which I didn't respond to) and then he would complain that he was overworked and over stressed and for me commpose all responses into one email at the end of the day so he wouldn't be bothered during the day.
He finally fired me, thank goodness. I felt like I had been sucked dry by a vampire.
|He finally fired me, thank goodness. I felt like I had been sucked dry by a vampire. |
Maybe the summary of this thread should be that we do the opposite of this. Instead of waiting to BE fired we DO the firing of PITA clients. I can't say I am personally real good at doing this, although at the moment I am very close with one of my clients.
|You offer exactly what they say they are looking for, have time to start right away, and meet their price point but they tell you "we are talking to a few other people" and don't want to commit. As soon as you get busy on something else they call and want to "get going right away". Worse: they "need to" get started immediately need to get it completed ASAP! |
This is a great description of a job I'm still on. A frend-of-a-friend's B&M was getting killed online. Their site was Flash intro in a frameset - basically non-indexable and looked miserable. We pitched them a redesign as something to be done now and if they wanted extensive e-commerce or other functionality, that's fine, but it would give them better results to get a decent site up ASAP.
That was in August 2006. I'm still working on this project.
I figured I could bang this out by November (and could have). They assigned one of their employees to be the single point of contact we insisted on and the guy was basically a sociopath.
There's much more to the story, but it learned me these lessons:
Don't try to convince someone they need a website. If they are not 100% ready, it will end up being a mess.
Build in deliverable dates for everything for both parties in your contract. I include the quote from lexipixel because I would wait forever for something and it would always come while I was busy with something else. They demanded I make changes ASAP while I was in the middle of a move to another state and starting a new job.
All client requests and contractor replies need to be in writing. There are many business owners out there who prefer to do things over the phone or in person. That's fine, just budget into your time/price your writing it up post meeting and e-mailing it to them. Until they reply agreeing that that's what was said, work is discontinued.
Sometimes it sucks to be a hardass, but it's necessary in business.
|Worse: they claim they do know how, just don't have time. |
That's not only a bad sign, I consider it a little insulting.
I've found that the more I charge, the less likely I am to have problems. Which is even more convenient because it makes it that much easier to give a down payment refund to a nitpicky customer without losing any sleep over it. Lately, I don't follow up with any prospective client that seems like trouble. It's simply not worth my time for back and forth emails and constant revisions.
|He would also pepper his emails with unrelated chit chat (which I didn't respond to) and then he would complain that he was overworked and over stressed and for me commpose all responses into one email at the end of the day so he wouldn't be bothered during the day. |
I try to train all contacts to send (1) email per subject, and to use an appropriate subject line so we can carry on multiple exchanges of email on that subject until the issue is resolved.
I work out of my InBox and find it a PITA to get an email commenting on homepage graphics, changes they want made to a script, intermixed with telling me their cat has fleas or their girlfriend has cats, (or vice-versa), then asking if I know a good website to buy 1959 Volvo car parts... and all sent with "Subject: a few questions"
To train them I take the first one of these run-on emails and reply with (3)
Subject: Homepage graphics
Subject: Coding Issues / ScriptName
Subject: Volvo Parts Website
...and ignore cats, girlfriends and fleas.
Thanks Lexi. Good idea. I must have 100 emails from that client with much less unique titles and only got the home page done in the meantime. I would have had to search them all to find a quote.
I have a 'two written estimates only' rule - they are allowed to screw up once in terms of mind changing/ scope, but once they are asking for a third written estimate, with natty little changes, they are ID'd as a PITA and I run the other way, a la 'wow, I am suddenly not available - try one of these people instead'
It's true I would have skipped a few of my earlier clients under this policy, who I do enjoy working with after years of working through the kinks. However, these accounts have always had low margins for me, compared with my 1-2 estimates only clients, so it's then perhaps still a cost (lost opportunity cost + low margins).
I have sacked clients in the past, and although the client has been left reeling in shock and threatening all sorts, it was definintely the right thing to do and made my world an infinitely more pleasurable place to be.
One client I sacked was the type who have a "grand vision" for changing an entire industry, using the web. Their vision is backed up by reams of philosophical thoughts and theoretical ideas on how this will happen and can't fail.
But that's not a basis to build a web site on. Web designers are by necessity details people - ideally we need to know exactly what is wanted, and when. Who cares about the why?
After weeks of listening to these philosophical ramblings you suddenly wake up and realise this web site is never going to get built because this person is incapable of working with details.
Another type are those who want to go into 50-50 partnership with you if you build their web site. Na-ah. Been burned like that waaay too many times thankyou very much. How about you just pay me for working on your amazing business idea that can't fail, since that way you'll be 50% richer when it takes off like a rocket, right?
|How about you just pay me for working on your amazing business idea that can't fail, since that way you'll be 50% richer when it takes off like a rocket, right? |
I agree 110%, this one seems to be a popular one with Internet "entrepreneurs". I don't even consider this idea anymore. I figure if the person has an idea that simply cannot fail they will have no trouble finding an endless supply of angel and venture partners that will give them cash that they can use to pay me.
Ha! My wife and I just encountered a similar situation. After being burned a few times by choosing to sign-on with some bad clients, we have gained a 6th sense so to speak that we try to ALWAYS follow.
Take last week for example. A potential new client speaks at length with my wife about a new project, we send out a work estimate/agreement. Our standard agreement has invoicing/payment terms to help cover us in case of non-payment. The client decides to cross all those clauses out, and sends us the agreement back signed.
A little background, previously we had worked with the wife of the husband-wife company/client. She was fairly pleasant to work with.
I call them up to see what we could change the payment terms to in order to make them comfortable. The other owner of the business (the husband) fielded our call. He complained on and on about our payment clause saying he felt it was not necessary since their project was only going to a week or two (not sure where he came up with that timeline, since we had not given a timeline, warning sign #1!). I patiently and politely offered to modify the payment terms (we state that we will send an invoice/bill every 2 weeks as the project progresses to collect payment as we go.. ). I offered to change it to 30 days, would that be better for them?
He simply didn't want to budge and started to insult our business saying that if we have problems collecting payments, then we must not be a good company to work with. I simply ended the call and told him I would forward his request to leave it as is to my wife (who is the sole owner of our business).
About an hour later my wife shoots off an e-mail to both the husband and wife letting them know that we are unable to take on their project due to the recent conversation with the husband, and how it just is not a good fit. Wish them the best, etc.
5 minutes later we get an e-mail back from the husband wanting to know how long we think the project might take. My wife simply responds answering his question, but re-iterating that we will not be taking it on, and again wishing them luck.
That was last we heard from them. We've learned when red-flags pop-up, it is worth it to pay good attention to how your potential new client is treating you, and how they think and operate. In this case, we didn't need the work, and he was a jackass.
A definite perk to working for yourself... You can choose the people you work with... =)