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Ace the fine art of managing Demanding and Difficult Sales Customers

‘In this article, Prasad prescribes ways in which salespersons can manage their emotions, understand timing and know their customers to deal with challenging customers better.’

Sales profession is undergoing a sea change as organizations move from license management to customer life cycle management. The role of a seller extends beyond the SELL-BILL-COLLECT cycle to ensuring customer success and value realization. While managing the prospect at pursuit stage is challenging, it is even more critical to maintain a cordial relationship once a customer comes on board.

Sellers need to excel at the fine art of managing “Demanding” and “Difficult” customers. The challenges faced with Demanding customers are more “rational” whereas “emotions” come to the fore with difficult ones. Whatever may be the customer persona, a salesperson needs to have the tact, patience, and perseverance to nurture the relationships. I am pleased to share some experiences in my career spanning pre-sales, Sales, and delivery roles which could be useful to a sales/customer facing professional.

Let’s start with demanding customers — since it is easy to manage the brain than win over hearts of people.  Technical Tarzans are customers who expect perfect service delivery. They expect highest level of quality and superior outcomes. It is a basic expectation nowadays from most customers and is non-negotiable. The good aspect in managing this segment is that their demand challenges the status quo and brings out the best in delivery teams. Sellers need to be up to date and be aware of emerging technologies to serve them well.

When the Technical Tarzans are not satisfied, they become SLA (Service Level Agreement) enforcers. They start reading every page of the agreement and start micro-managing the engagement. Sellers need to work on a Performance Improvement Plan along with delivery team to salvage the situation. Else, the service provider will become an SLA slave to customer.Quite often customers give a long rope to theseller to set the house in order before cracking the whip. The seller needs to keep a close tab and raise the red flag internally at appropriate stage.

The deadliest form of demanding customers are “contractual controllers”. Typically, public sector & government customers start imposing penalty on the service provider for the lapses or inability to meet the agreed service levels. I remember conducting a pilot electronic tendering project for a government housing corporation in Chennai two decades ago. The salesperson has not clearly differentiated the service possible under a pilot project and full-fledged implementation of the system. Hence, the customer was demanding 1000% customization of system which was difficult to meet. My situation as a Project Manager was precariously sandwiched between the customer and software development team. One day, I mustered courage and told the Customer Point of Contact that all their expectations can be met only in roll out and not in pilot stage. For this the customer quipped “Your company has signed a vague contract — even if we ask you to cut the head — you need to do so”. For a moment, I was speechless. How I managed this customer and delivered the project is reserved for a hilarious book to be published later. Bottomline, salespersons should avoid walking into the unknown traps.

While rational issues are solvable, sellers usually struggle to manage the emotions of the buyers. Here it is difficult to bucket the customer into some personas because the same person might be manifesting different emotions at various points of time. Sellers need to have situational fluency to manage difficult customers. I remember the good old days, when every employee used to meet the personal secretary of a Vice President before entering his cabin. The irony is all posed the same question to the secretary “How is the boss’ mood?”. It may sound silly but that’s what most medical representatives do before meeting a doctor to pitch their products.

There is no greater disaster for a salesperson than landing at a wrong time to meet the customer. While emojis may help in a WhatsApp communication, seller needs to face the reality in person. A Friday afternoon is always a preferred time than facing a customer with Monday morning blues. But sellers do not have the luxury since time and tide wait for no man or woman.

Sellers need to master their KYC – Know Your Customer to ensure a productive relationship.  Understanding the social styles of customer like Expressive, Driver, Analytical and Amicable can help the seller to adopt the right approach suited to the individual. For example, a seller needs to meet an Analytical customer armed with data points, research etc. and present facts & figures to address burning issue. On the contrary, the seller needs to be a patient listener while meeting an Expressive customer and understand what the core issue is that he/she is raising.

Personally, I feel managing an angry customer is far easy than handling a stoic one. Customer complaints are an opportunity for a service provider to become better. In the virtual world — stress levels are rising with diminishing work-life balance. Lack or reduction in human-to-human connection is leading to undesirable behaviors like outbursts. Sellers could be more successful with customers by understanding the Ego-defense mechanisms (EDM).  EDM are unconscious psychological processes that help an individual cope with anxiety resulting from a stressful internal or external environment. So, when a customer behaves in a particular manner, the salesperson needs to go underneath the visible portion of iceberg to understand the undercurrents that are causing such behavior from clients. While sellers are not expected to be a psychologists, rich lessons can be derived from EDM to handle difficult customers.

The simple prescription for handling demanding customers is having a 100% Say: Do ratio. i.e., delivering as per commitment at any cost. A preventive/ pro-active approach to address customer issues is better than a reactive one akin to the saying “a stitch in time saves nine”.  An easy solution to manage difficult customers is to understand the person behind the position. I had seen this combined approach helps sellers & customer facing teams to manage relationships better.

While the wave of artificial intelligence and machine learning is making many professions redundant, sales continue to thrive because of the need to address the rational and emotional aspects in a customer interaction. Let’s build its capability to remain future proof. Happy selling!


-Managing demanding customers is a challenge and requires technical knowledge, patience, and perseverance.

-A 100% Say-Do ratio is the key to managing demanding customers, along with a preventive and proactive approach to address issues.-Different types of demanding customers exist, including technical Tarzans, SLA enforcers, and contractual controllers.

-Emotional management is also a crucial aspect in dealing with difficult customers.

-Knowing the customer, their social styles, and ego defense mechanisms can help the seller understand their behavior and adopt the right approach.

Prasad Panapakkam is a Senior Manager with extensive experience in management consulting and is now in the coaching space. With over two decades of experience in sales and client engagement, ‘Professor Prasad’ as his colleagues call him, has served clients in various industries in areas like Business performance improvement, IT strategy and Functional excellence.
Chandrani Datta works as a Manager-Content Research and Development with almost a decade’s experience in writing and editing of content. A former journalist turned content manager, Chandrani has written and edited for different brands cutting across industries. The hunger for learning, meaningful work and novel experiences keeps her on her toes. An avid traveller, Chandrani’s interests lie in photography, reading and watching movies.

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