How would you tell a customer that your price is going up? Or that they’re dragging the chain?
Most businesses are a little afraid about communicating the hard truths with customers. They look to ‘massage the message’ and find the positives…sometimes when there are very few to be found.
The thing is, you just can’t tip-toe around some things. And if you do, it’ll cost you money.
This is your guide to how to have hard conversations with your customers.
Don’t shy away from hard conversations – it’s basically that simple. It’s a two-way street though, and it’ll be much easier if you’re open and receptive to customers having tough conversations with you too.
Building good customer relationships is probably something you’re already focusing on. When you do it well, things are just easy. You work well together, communicate well and business is mutually beneficial for you both.
When you don’t have a good customer service relationship, it gets much harder. Things just don’t seem to gel. There are mistakes and misunderstandings, and it takes a lot of emailing back and forward to get basic things done.
Ultimately, good relationships make for good business. With a well managed relationship, customers pay their invoices on time and they don’t question the work you do.
In fact, the importance of customer relationship management for revenue is one of the big benefits.
A good customer relationship is not like a friendship. Sure, you can be friends, but the whole reason for the relationship is different – it’s about delivering business benefits for you both.
Being direct enables both yourself and your customer to focus on the correct process to get things done. Yes, there are some things best left unsaid in business, but these are the minority.
For example, many marketing or digital agencies make the mistake of being too passive, which results in clients having too much say in guiding the process. While clients know what they want, they don’t always know the best way to get there – even if they think they do.
By taking clients’ leads on things that are your responsibility, you become accountable. That accountability extends beyond just that single relationship too – for example, a marketing agency creating content for a client will make their work public for anyone to see and form an opinion on.
If the client has dictated the content and the campaign is a flop, it’ll be your fault.
Disagreeing with a directive from the client may seem like rocking the boat, but it’s vital to remember that it’s for the greater good. Clients can express opinions about the work you do, but you are the expert in your field, not them.
As awkward as hard conversations might be, you CAN still have a good client relationship after these discussions.
These are some of the most common types of tough conversations – and most important.
Paying invoices on time is a basic courtesy, but it goes beyond just being polite. Late paying customers create negative cash flow and force businesses to cover outgoings with their own money. In businesses that run on tight margins, this may not be possible.
There’s often no excuse why customers don’t pay invoices on time, and it takes time and energy to chase them up. If a customer is habitually late, talking to them about the impact it has on your business can encourage them to pay on time.
No-one likes their costs going up, which is generally why it’s hard to tell customers your services are about to cost them more.
But consider the alternatives – either putting the rate up without telling them (which is a sign of a poor customer relationship), or not putting them up at all. Accepting a lower rate because you want to avoid the awkwardness of a conversation is clearly not worth it.
In truth, if you’re increasing your rate, it’s probably because you’re delivering greater value to customers than they’re paying at the moment. As much as anything, this conversation is about backing yourself and your business.
Technology allows businesses to save time and money in a range of ways, including in the way it helps to serve customers. Chatbots, automated emails and tools that customers can use themselves are incredibly cost-effective, and they still provide valuable solutions.
Generally speaking, most customers will be ok to use these tools to get what they need. However, customers that are reluctant to use technology may resist. They’re probably used to getting personalised customer service, and will say things like “I’m not very good with technology.”
Technology is the way of the world, and it’s easy to use. If you personalise your processes to suit one customer, it ultimately costs you money. On top of that, as soon as you do it once, you’re likely to do it again and again for others.
Managing customer relationships doesn’t have to be hard. By committing to a few core principles, you’ll nurture a positive, mutually beneficial business client relationship.
If you ask customers if they want you to be transparent, of course they’ll say yes. But often they won’t actually like it. However, make it clear from the outset that you will probably disagree with them on things, and when you do, you’ll speak up about it.
Next, invite your customer to do the same with you. It’s a two-way street – if you allow customers to have a tough conversation with you, you’ll be able to have them in return. It’ll also make having those chats much easier.
The hardest part about having a tough conversation is the beginning. Often when they’re needed, they don’t happen because the chance didn’t present itself.
As above, asking for feedback yourself gives you the chance to provide feedback to the customer. This way you can cultivate a customer relationship that’s based around not only doing business together, but helping each other to grow and improve through feedback.
Having regular customer surveys is a great way to get feedback without being too confrontational.
As part of your customer agreement, make a point of catching up with them once a month to talk about the work you’re doing together.
Read more: The customer relationship checklist
Not only does it allow you to discuss your regular work, but it enables you to get to know each other on a better level and means you can get past any issues that have popped up in the last few weeks.
This is about personal integrity. By committing to being honest regardless of the circumstances, you put yourself in a better situation to confront the truth. Making this commitment with a colleague can help to hold each other accountable.
Many business relationships develop as if it was an accident. By making a genuine commitment to growing positive relationships – and following through on that commitment with your actions – you’ll find customers are easier to deal with and they’ll recommend you to other people in their network too.
When having a tough conversation with a customer, it’s best had in person. Tone and nuance are important aspects of these discussions, and they’re much harder to portray in writing.
The thing is, many people will prefer to deliver hard truths in writing because it means they don’t have to confront the customer. It may seem easier to send an email, but there’s much more opportunity for customers to misconstrue what you’re saying and lose control of the conversation.
Ultimately, it’s about integrity to your own business and doing what’s best for both you AND your customer.