Tennis Industry magazine


Tough Customers?

Every retail operation will come up against people who make life difficult. Here are some strategies to help you keep things under control.

By Dr. Robert F. Heller

Difficult customers can be a challenge to any business. They can negatively impact other customers, your employees, your bottom line, and your stress level.

To a large degree, “difficult” is a matter of perception. “Difficult” for one person may be “manageable” to someone else. The owner’s or employee’s personality, tolerance, and people skills will go a long way to influencing this perception. These factors, along with others such as the store policy, inventory, expertise, pricing and so on, can sometimes turn a satisfied customer into a difficult one or a difficult one into a satisfied one.

Recognizing your triggers

What type of person or situation do you find most difficult to handle? Think about the times you’ve felt annoyed, angered, or frustrated following a phone call or face-to-face interaction with a customer. Recall the situation, what happened, what thoughts were going through your mind and what your feelings, mood, and emotions were like. Was it someone who was very demanding? Very loud? Was the person looking for a deal? Was it one who often brings items back? A customer who wants “extra” or special treatment? A namedropper? A person who blames the equipment for their poor performance?

See if you can identify a particular pattern or style of person that you find most difficult to take. Each of us has a sensitivity that can be easily triggered and can lower our tolerance and ability to manage certain customers and situations as effectively as we would like. Knowing our own vulnerabilities can help us develop strategies to handle tough situations more successfully while taking less of a toll on us emotionally. Awareness is the first step in learning to effectively manage difficult people.

For example, if you are impatient with people who are slow in making decisions, are unclear about what they want, or change their mind frequently, you may benefit by learning how to be more tolerant, patient, or understanding. Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes can help you learn to see things from their point of view.

If you are too sensitive about being liked or approved of by others, you may fail to set or enforce established policies and procedures and be vulnerable to being taken advantage of by certain types of individuals. By learning to care less about what others think about you, it will be easier for you to communicate more assertively with others and to better tolerate occasional criticism.

Check your business practices

Frequently, the phone is the first point of contact a customer has with your business, and it can set the tone for what’s to follow. Of course, personal contact in the store is always important, too.

Here are some questions you need to ask about how you and your employees deal with customers, both on the phone and in person.

On the Phone: How accessible is your business by phone? Is the line often busy? Is the customer put on hold for more than a few seconds? If they want to speak to you, are you often not available? Does a person answer the phone, or are callers put through a maze of voice prompts? Are the people answering the phone trained properly? Can they give prompt, knowledgeable replies to most common questions? Do they seem to care about the caller’s question and genuinely want to help? Do they go the extra step to get the answer the customer is looking for or call them back shortly once they find out?

In the Store: Are customers greeted and offered assistance? Are they given space to browse and not feel pressured? Are employees prompt, polite, and service-oriented? Do they make efforts to “build” rapport with customers? Are items well-marked, organized, and accessible to the customer? Are employees trained in providing customer service? Do they have accurate knowledge of the products they sell? Do they know who to refer to for questions or additional information? Do you role-play or rehearse sticky situations, like someone walking out of the store and “forgetting” to pay for an item? Are your policies clear, written, and posted? Whether it’s your hours of operation or return policy, are you consistent and reliable in what you say and what you do?

Your customers can be a great source of valuable information if you provide them easy ways to tell you how they feel about your store, products, policies, prices, employees, services, etc. Do you provide a suggestion box to solicit comments from customers? Do you have an in-house customer-satisfaction survey or send out surveys to existing customers? Do you periodically invest in paying people to call or visit your business and provide you feedback on their experience as “customers”?

Strategies for dealing with difficult customers

In spite of your best efforts to work on yourself, surround yourself with good employees and establish excellent business practices and procedures, you will at some point run into people who make you question if you really want to be in business. Here are several “customer types” you may encounter, along with some options for dealing with them.

The impatient customer

Characteristics: This “type A” personality is always in a hurry and seems to be in dire need of immediate service all the time. Not only are they always in a rush, but also they seek to rush others to accommodate them. Their reasons for instant service are similar: “My car is double-parked”; “There is only five minutes left on the parking meter”; “I’m late for a doctor’s appointment.” They may crowd you physically, interrupt you on the phone, and generally appear anxious and uncomfortable.

Strategy: Acknowledge their presence and indicate that you will be with them just as soon as you can. If possible, give them the approximate time in minutes until you can help them. Ask a co-worker who may be less busy to assist them or suggest they might come back at another (specific) time when it is likely to be less crowded and you will have more time and attention for them.

The bargainer

Characteristics: These people love to bargain. It really doesn’t matter what they are bargaining over. Whatever your price is, they will ask to have it for less. If you have an item that is 10 percent off, they’ll ask you to sell it to them for 20 percent off. They may have facts to back up their request for an additional discount, such as an ad from a competitor, or they may make up a story and attempt to “bluff” you into giving an additional discount.

Strategy: If your mark-up warrants it and the customer buys things frequently at your store, you may be able to justify an additional discount. Beware, for they may tell other customers of yours who will want a similar discount. Another strategy is to offer a justification for your price in terms of your superior service, selection, convenience, etc. A third strategy is to make your own bargain. For example, “I can give you 20 percent off, if you buy three racquets instead of one.”

The tire kicker

Characteristics: This is the type of customer who likes to shop but not to buy. They try on lots of clothes many times, ask detailed questions ranging from where the garment was made to what famous athlete is promoting it, and so on. They take up a fair amount of your time and energy, and rarely do they make it worth your while.

Strategy: If you have the time and it’s not terribly busy, you may choose to politely answer their questions. If not, you can tell them you need to assist another customer and should they be ready to make a purchase, they can catch your eye and you will be happy to assist them in taking the merchandise directly to the counter.

The perfectionist

Characteristics: The perfectionist is highly critical and rarely satisfied. The clothes don’t look quite right. The racquet was supposed to be strung at 55 pounds, but it doesn’t feel quite right to them. It must be strung too loosely. The can of balls they just opened seemed a bit dead. The first five racquets they demoed didn’t have the desired feel; can they demo a sixth racquet?

Strategy: Give them the benefit of the doubt, but set limits: “The racquet was strung at 55 pounds, and we recently calibrated the machine so we know it was correct when we gave it to you. Many factors can affect playability …”

“The balls seem fine to me but I want you to be happy, so here’s another can. However, if this can is not suitable either, there is nothing more I can do since it is from the same batch and brand, and that’s all I carry.”

“At this point, Mr. Smith, it may be that you would feel more comfortable with a ‘customized’ racquet, which we are able to provide at very competitive prices.” Alternatively, you can charge a daily user fee to try out loaners and apply it to the cost of a purchase.

Keeping it together

Keep in mind that we’ve only scratched the surface here-the types of difficult customers and situations you may encounter in your business can be enormous. For some general coping strategies, adapted from my CD program “TENNISMIND,” try repeating these “affirmations” every day for the next month:

  1. “I can handle difficult situations with skill and composure.”
  2. “When conflicts arise, I stay calm and in control.”
  3. “I recognize that people are not perfect and am tolerant of the sometimes annoying behaviors of others.”

You’ll be amazed at how simply being able to affirm to yourself that you can handle these types of difficult people and situations will help you cope better day-to-day.

Dealing with difficult people is a part of life, and dealing with difficult customers is a part of every business. Accept the fact that you’ll be faced with some tough customers, work with it, and remember, “Don’t take life (yourself or others) too seriously, or you will never get out alive!”

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About the Author

Dr. Robert F. Heller  is a psychologist and consultant in the areas of performance enhancement and stress management. He is the author of Mental Skills for Match Play and Mental Toughness. For information on telephone consultation, products, and other services, contact,, or 561-451-2731. He is based in Boca Raton, Fla.



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