10 Reasons Why Your Customers are Being Difficult

Customer insights
 As customers, do we need a corporation to satisfy our emotional needs to earn our loyalty? Nine years ago, this conversation of dealing with difficult customers was top of mind. It was at about the same time digital marketing moved more squarely into the business of making things personal (with mixed results.)

    But something else was also happening at the same time — wider adoption of social media across professions and industries. People talked, brands that established a presence in social media early had a tremendous advantage of accessing for the first time raw qualitative data in context and learn in conversation with them.

    Some organizations learned a lot, others just figured it made for better tracking. Hence the conversations on ad tech of today. The truth on loyalty is that nobody enjoys going through hoops, unless they are in the business of hoop jumping.

    We enjoy even less being stalked online without a corresponding improvement in the information coming at us everywhere (even less in product or service.) Richer experiences, even meeting expectations drive loyalty more than a bunch of points or a cooler.

    But the complexity of business makes internal alignment in support of external service still elusive for organizations. This is a problem that involves data —how it's collected, aggregated, and analyzed not just to look in the rear-view mirror, but to predict future needs— different groups and roles, and trust in both.

    Insights are still elusive or not actionable and service in social networks still special because of the many disconnects between systems, people, and process.

    This creates frustration and endless cycles of trying new things to see what sticks, rigid processes that don't allow flexibility, and more rear-view mirror conversations. It makes for a thriving industry, but an expensive issue without a fix — employee turnover, customer churn, revenue at risk, etc.

The bar is so low, it's the only thing we can step over. There's a better approach to the problem…

… meanwhile, let's challenge the premise — is it true that customers are needier or is there a more nuanced way to understand why they're being difficult?

(1.) Limited Options

    Industry consolidation has created fewer options in many markets. Air travel, cable, mobile communications, and many more may feel they have a captive audience. Customers don't have much recourse without going out of their way.

    It takes a special effort not to be arrogant in those circumstance, and customers don't like the treatment. Competition is a better incentive to try harder. In markets where more than two options are available, customers do vote with their wallets. Fewer options and they pick the cheaper, or the less terrible.

    But, without control over choices, when the only better alternative becomes no service, any small infraction on top of poor overall service creates the conditions for a potential crisis. Human psychology at work — we don't like to feel trapped.

(2.) Desire to be Part of Something Bigger/Better

    Community building and community management are no longer a thing new startups do to gain momentum. They're a viable path to learning about preferences, gaining product intelligence, getting the word out on exciting new developments, and leading in an industry.

    Organizations that are excited to be part of building community create the conditions for gaining deeper insights into their business. This is how small, local, niche brands are winning business over larger, anonymous big companies.

(3.) Value-Cost Gap

    It's not just about tightening the belt, although that is part of it. But of making different choices. Experiences rate higher that products or things in many sectors, likely except luxury and technology. But not all luxury brands are created equal in the value-price gap.

    The Swiss watch industry is in trouble. Hermes didn't post results as rosy as Gucci last year. Kering Net Profit Up 120% in 2017 as Gucci Sales Top 6 Billion Euros read an article in WWD. Apple laptops continues to sell well because they make it easier to buy them. (When I last compared prices for Surface and MacBooks, they were basically equivalent for what I needed.) 

    If there isn't a perceived or tangible value, switching becomes easier. Value is more important than price. So many brands still stumble horribly here in an attempt to be all things to all people.

(4.) Still not Listening Well

    Who has time to fill out 100-question surveys? Even if they did, customers often get all the way to the end just to talk about their experience in the only open text box available. Famously, nobody ever follows up. It's 2018, marketing should be personal by now.

    Organizations that listen well have put in place mechanisms to capture customers feedback in multiple ways, even when the customer is not actively answering surveys. They understand digital body language, use automation to begin conversations when and if the customer is ready, and use evidence to inform service and product decisions — in real time.

(5.) Can't Do, Do

    Needing to escalate an issue is probably a least favorite for both — customers and organizations. But speaking to managers, supervisors, and executives becomes necessary because the people on the front lines are still not able to say yes to requests.

    The conversation may have started on the right foot, but when the rep (or call center agent) continues to talk about what can't be done, throws rules and policy books at customers in need of answers, there's no way to close the issue. Once a person invests time in trying to get support, it becomes a bigger deal.

(6.) Organization Amnesia

    Literally after each interaction with someone from an organization, a quick NPS form pops up — even in social. One challenge for customers is that to rate an organization or issue is hard when the experience is mixed.

    The social media team did an amazing job, was responsive. But the regular call center sucked. That is something we can say. Does anyone capture it? Customers never year back when they provide specific case feedback through regular channels.

(7.) Poor Communication

    One more step on the infuriating scale is when organizations ask, acknowledge what customers are saying, then do nothing about it. If a customer takes the time to provide input, the expectation is that there will be some kind of follow up.

    In many organizations, poor internal communication is also a contributing factor. Questions and cases get lost in transmission, people are not sure who should see what, and so on. When wasted effort is not visible, it's hard to measure.

(8.) Difficulty in Reaching the Right Person

    Many touch points are good for marketing, but when it comes to customer support, not so good. Anyone who has experienced one or two transfers when calling a company, hold times, maybe even a dropped call cannot but be frustrated.

    When organizations have poor visibility into what moves the needle for the business, it becomes harder to define what their brand and product stands for and does, and who supports what. 

(9.) Changing Rules

    Managing expectations is one thing, but today the rules and the fine print are changing so often, that it's become difficult to figure out what is included and what isn't, with anything. Trust erodes when organizations and their people say one thing and then change the rule.

    This is why customers often use public forums for grievances, often armed with screen shots.

(10.) Some Customers are Going to be Difficult

    It's not personal, let's face it, there may not be a way of pleasing them. For some organizations this may mean they should stop trying — that customer is never going to be happy, nor profitable. But what if they are profitable?

    There's a good argument for firing them anyway, or they might poison the rest. And about the rest… why not engage more with the happy customers, learn what makes them happy, and apply to the indifferent middle?


The more technology accelerates change, the more people stay the same. Many of these issues don't have to become problems, they can be handled by aligning the organization to respond at the point of need with relevant, intelligent actions.

    Customers are not needier, they're just people trying to get something done, have a good night sleep at a hotel, arrive on time for a family function or meeting, watch a favorite show, make an important call, or send flowers to a special person.


Updated from archives.