Penny Tremblay wears a coral suit while speaking to a group
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Difficult customers can be your greatest assets: A conversation with Penny Tremblay

By Gabrielle Piché

Many entrepreneurs share the same nightmare — the angry customer yelling at an employee, the horrible phone call ending with ‘You’ve lost a client,’ the mean comment on social media. Difficult customers are, well, difficult, but they can help improve your business, according to Penny Tremblay.

Tremblay is the founder of Tremblay Leadership Center and a business growth advisor with the PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise. She leads sessions on workplace relationships. Tremblay asks that attendees evaluate her workshops once they’re finished.

“There was a time in my career where if I delivered a session to 100 people and I got one complaint and 99 ‘excellents,’ that one complaint would bug me for a week,” she said.

Eventually, Tremblay realized the “excellents” weren’t helping her. It was the criticism that led her to change her workshops.

Tremblay began asking for tougher feedback. She wanted to make her programs better.

“It was a mind shift for me to acknowledge feedback as a gift.”

It’s this mental shift — seeing criticism and difficult customers as gifts — that will make your business excel, Tremblay said.

Reacting versus Responding

Often, people don’t want to be jerks to companies, Tremblay said. “It’s quite possible that people have logical complaints.”

Complaints vary. Customers call if a product or service doesn’t meet their expectations, or if something comes late. Dinner is cold, the massage is too expensive. The shirt is much smaller than what it looks like online.

Entrepreneurs should respond, not react, to difficult customers, Tremblay said.

“When I hear the word react, it always gets my attention,” she said. “It’s in that reaction that we’re emotionally charged.”

Signs of reaction include feeling offended, aggravated and insulted; having heart palpitations; and getting sweaty, according to Tremblay.

Responding means taking a step back from the situation and making a clear-headed, logical decision.

It’s easier to take time to respond when a client emails or posts on social media, Tremblay said.

“If it’s face to face, it’s a little bit harder to say ‘I want to take a pause, I want to think about that.’”

Even so, it’s good to have a time out when dealing with difficult customers in person, Tremblay said.

Listening to Customers Improves Your Business

Entrepreneurs should have an open mind when hearing feedback from clients, she said.

“We can never control how people are going to say it, or what other people’s intentions are,” Tremblay said. “What we can control is what we make it mean.”

You need to realize what baggage you’re hanging onto, Tremblay said. It can block you from seeing a customer’s point.

“We treat our businesses like it’s our baby… Nobody wants to be told that their baby’s ugly.”

Receiving feedback, listening and restating the client’s concerns is the best way to make a client feel heard, Tremblay said.

“It doesn’t make the customer right. It’s one person’s opinion — it’s not right or wrong, it just is what it is.”

It’s good to understand the client’s point of view. Their criticism might be what’s needed to take your business to the next level of excellence, Tremblay said.

“The best way to receive negative feedback from anybody is to say thank you.”

Breaking Up With a Customer

You can’t please all customers, Tremblay said.

“If they’re sucking the life out of you then, at some point you realize, this just isn’t worth the $7.50 or this just isn’t worth the $17,000, whatever the cost is.”

Entrepreneurs should weigh how much a customer is costing them from a time, mental state and money standpoint, she said.

“People get to that point when they’re busy. They’re so busy that they don’t have to take a customer because they don’t need the money.”

However, entrepreneurs at all stages should consider how to handle customers who are hurting their business, Tremblay said. Some business owners may be scared to turn away clients, but they need to trust themselves.

“It’s knowing that we have a good product or service, knowing that good things will come to us, knowing that if we continue to serve as best we can, there will always be opportunity.”

Tremblay coaches her clients to write a description of their perfect customer.

“A good customer isn’t always one that’s easy to please,” she said.

People’s opinions of a good customer vary. Some value a trustworthy client; others want one who refers their company to friends. The description acts as a benchmark for evaluating customers, Tremblay said.

If you’ve weighed the pros and cons of keeping a customer, and the customer is hurting your business, you can tell them about a competitor’s company, Tremblay said.

“We can pass people off in a nice way.”

Breaking Up Isn’t the Only Way Forward

Breaking up with a customer can have repercussions, Tremblay said.

“The life cycle of a customer can be very lucrative, especially if they have referrals.”

A negative experience with a client doesn’t mean you have to end a relationship with them, she said.

“We have to have the night to appreciate the day. We have to have the challenging customers to learn.”

Not feeling good about a situation isn’t a reason to quit, Tremblay said.

“It could mean that you need to stop doing things the way you’ve been doing them and find a different way.”

It comes back to listing the pros and cons of keeping the customer. Tremblay said in tricky situations, she thinks about what her mentor would do, and she talks it out with fellow professionals.

Ultimately, negative customer experiences and criticism can be used to make your business stronger, Tremblay said.

“It’s all how you receive that feedback that will make it good or bad.”