What To Do When A Customer Makes Unreasonable Demands

January 14, 2009 by  

difficult customers

In “Are Customers Stupid?”, we discussed how important it is to listen attentively to customer complaints and inquiries even when such feedback seem negative or trivial.  As business owners, we can improve our business system by listening to such feedback and possibly make more money.

One reader commented on that post, saying

“Sometimes (not often), they (my note: customers or prospects) do need to be put in their place for consuming too much time and resources, even to a point of letting them go from your business. But I would hope this is the exception rather than the rule.”

Another said,

“There are just some people out there who will complain for the sake of complaining. There are also those who are just trying to get something for nothing and play the system.”

This is a critical issue all businesses are aware of but not very willing to discuss.  There are customers who make unreasonable demands.  In this post, I’d like to explore this sensitive issue with the highest level of honesty and integrity I have in order to help other entrepreneurs.

(Hey, I’m keeping my promise to write a post on this issue.  Although writing this now, after almost five months may not qualify as “soon” ;) )

Which demand is reasonable and which is not?

I fist started thinking about this issue when I read about Nordstrom’s customer service training in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  For those of you outside North America, Nordstrom is a major department store chain that is famous for its excellent customer service.  It’s a high end department store.

On page 73 (BTW this book itself is a great read.  A must read for writers), there are some stories that are meant to illustrate the extraordinary customer services by “Nordie” (Nordstrom’s customer service representatives) such as:

  • The Nordie who cheerfully gift wrapped products a customer bought at Macy’s
  • The Nordie who refunded money for a set of tire chains – although Nordstrom doesn’t sell tire chains

Now as you can see in my aforementioned post, I take customer service seriously.  I don’t really know if it’s Japanese thing like some commenters pointed out, but anyway, I do.  I believe money follows when I deliver value, and customer service is a significant part of any business offer.

But these examples are a bit different.  Why does Nordstrom refund money for something it didn’t sell?  Is it because this customer makes other lots of purchases?  Or is it because he made a fuss?  Do they do this to anyone who wants money for unwanted tire chains?

And where does that money come from?  From other customers, of course.  So Nordstrom is spending their profit made off from honest customers and making dishonest customers happy.  Is this really an example of outstanding customer service?

In my opinion, this is the case of unreasonable customer demand.

How about gift wrapping Macy’s products?  This is less of a problem . . . wrapping paper cost is pretty negligible. Still, Nordstrom is using their employee time to do this.  And their paycheck comes from – again, from the money customers pay.  I think this is a borderline demand that is very close to being unreasonable.

Where is the healthy boundary?

I like Nordstrom, but after reading this story, I was baffled.  And I think twice when I buy anything there.

Personally, I think Nordstrom is making a mistake.  There is great customer service, and there is brown nosing.  I’d be happy to pay for great customer service, like sales reps helping me find the right stuff, but I don’t want to pay for some jerks who make money with lies.

As a business owner, I understand the fear you may have when dealing with the kind of customers who make unreasonable demands.  It’s not just the loss of sale to that customer.  They can spread bad words about your business.  These days, they can post unreasonable reviews on the internet and affect tons of unsuspecting prospects.  And people who make unreasonable demands are likely to write unreasonable reviews.  They are good at pushing people’s buttons.

I still think businesses are better off in the long run to have the healthy boundary and make that clear to everyone.  Like clear refund policy.

What we can do as customers to promote and protect good businesses

And I think, as customers, we are better off to protect good businesses that treat all customers fairly. When you see or hear negative reviews, be sure to check the facts.  Contact the business to check if the said problem is true.  Like in any dispute resolution, hearing both sides’ stories is important.  By doing this, you are ultimately protecting yourself and your money from being spent on the few unreasonable customers the businesses have to deal with.

If you automatically sympathize to all the stories of “OMG I got ripped off by that business, they are horrible.”  watch out.  Check if it’s true.  Likewise, don’t just trust the reputation that Nordstrom is a great place of shop.  Check it out for yourself.

The dark manipulative energy

And then, there are people who are not customers, not really prospects, but just want to make fuss.  People who likes to use the dark manipulative energy.

In online world, one way this happens is negative comments.  By negative comments, I don’t mean comments that disagrees.  That can be constructive feedback and I love them.  What I mean is comments with name-calling.

For example, check this out in which the proud Lord Chartland got called prostitute. (It’s the second comment there.)

This is the post James talked about money, and because the word money pushes many people’s buttons, it wasn’t a surprise he got some difficult comments.  Most, however, were trying to come up with good ways to deal with the sensitive issue of pricing.  For example, Tony showed off his peacock feathers and took the side of free offer.  He was disagreeing James but with great logics = great feedback.  But calling James prostitute?  That’s just pointless name calling.

What is this person’s motivation?  He does seem to have bought anything from Men with Pens.  Doesn’t sound like he ever wanted to hire them.  Subscribers are kinda like customers, but still losing one subscriber probably didn’t hurt Men with Pens.  So why is this person doing this?

To make people feel bad?  I guess.  There are souls like that.  Watch out.

The line between seemingly negative feedback and really negative feedback

Knowing the difference between the complains / inquiries we discussed in “Are Customers Stupid?” and the unreasonable demands discussed in this article is wisdom.  As an entrepreneur, we need to be mindful about this.  When you encounter difficult situations, refrain from reacting it – whether the reaction is the “No way” kind of rejection or “Whatever you say” kind of brown nosing.  The first step to solution is to keep your calm.

So what do you think?  If you are an entrepreneur, will you please share how you handle with customers who make unreasonable demands?  And as customers (which, we all are), what do you think about this issue?  Have you ever stood up to protect your favorite business? Do you think some (few, hopefully) customers who make unreasonable demands are hurting you indirectly? (Photo by Denis Collette)

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19 Responses to “What To Do When A Customer Makes Unreasonable Demands”

  1. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on January 14th, 2009 9:11 am

    I remember that moment. I’ve been called a Comment Whore, but never a downright prostitute. (One is better than the other, I like to think!)

    Back to Nordstrom and Made to Stick (FANTASTIC BOOK!), I see your point. But here’s something further (and I could be way out there with this!):

    This extra service is a cost of goods sold. It’s the time that goes into creating a service. Therefore, it’s a writeoff to begin with. The less tax a corporation has to pay, the better it is for the company.

    So bad customers help companies pay less tax. Mm?

    Then, say the bad customer becomes a good customer. The investment was small, the returns potentially much larger. More returns, a healthier company. A healthier company, better profits. More profits, better investments in the company. Higher pay for employees. Bonuses. Benefits. Good stuff.

    So bad customers help employees have a better job. Mm?

    Whatcha think?

  2. Betsy Wuebker on January 14th, 2009 9:51 am

    This was a great, thoughtful post. James’ point above is well-taken. Additionally, there is benefit when employees are empowered, and that’s what Nordstrom’s service ethic is all about – giving/expecting employees to “own” the issues that arise within their purview is a matter of trust and respect.

    That being said, keeping calm is good advice. It’s definitely okay to point out to someone that perhaps they could be better served elsewhere (and busy up your competitor? :) )

    Ironically, in one of our businesses my most difficult customer in 2008 was one who had received a very significant amount of our gift services for free as a prize winner. Evidently, she had high expectations with respect to her prize, and we did our best to meet them. We are all tuned in different keys, some more highly strung than others. It’s possible that some of these people don’t realize the effect that they are having – they’re just caught up in their own stuff. A good thing to keep in mind during more exasperated moments.

  3. akemi on January 14th, 2009 9:57 am

    Ah, I got your attention, Lord Chartland ^_^

    Obviously you’ve been in business longer than I have. I never thought about it that way in relation to tax. (And yeah, I don’t sell physical stuffs, so I guess I didn’t know about this.)

    I see the point of turning unhappy customers to happy ones, and handling returns gracefully is one of the critical part of it. If it’s the regular kind of returns / refunds, I absolutely agree that businesses should handle it with courtesy. I’m still not sure refunding something Nordstrom didn’t sell to begin with, however.

    And we are talking about this issue from business owners’ perspective (plus as customers), not necessarily from employees’ perspective. Keeping unnecessary workforce is not good for the overall health of a business, I think.

  4. akemi on January 14th, 2009 10:05 am


    Yes, empowering employees is important! Thank you for pointing it out. And in that area, Nordstrom does great employee education. I can feel their sales reps are far more committed to customer satisfaction and that is one of the reasons I like shopping there (along with great lines of products and nice facade)

    Again I think “difficult customer” can mean a lot of things. I think I am often pretty difficult because I expect great customer service and products. But I’d like to think I don’t make unreasonable demands. There is a line there.

  5. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on January 14th, 2009 10:07 am

    I’m gonna have fun with this conversation!

    Alright, first thing: Cost of Goods sold does not relate to products only. Services have a COGS as well, and that is deductible. Anything – ANYTHING – that must be spent to create a service is a COGS. Your time, for example, is a COGS.

    Now, second thing: Even with the refund/returns, I still see this as a good thing for both the company, its employees and good customers. Take a look:

    I buy four tires from Canadian Tire. I hate ‘em. I bring them to Nordstrom and demand my money back.

    Norstrom, being the good kind souls they are, agree and refund me $600. That’s a net loss for them.

    So I’m pretty impressed by their kindness OR I’m pretty smug I got $600 from Nordstrom. Either way, I’m going to talk about what happened and tell my buddies.

    It’s a great story. It’ll stick. It’ll get repeated. Told again. (case in point, this post!) Nordstrom, for $600, manages to grab word-of-mouth fame. Word of mouth is the best marketing tactic out there.

    So Nordstrom’s sales go UP because of that one loss. PLUS, they gained a loyal customer (me, the tire swindler) AND probably all my friends, too. They have a really cheap marketing campaign on the go, AND, the story is timeless. Rock on.

    So Nordstrom is doing SO well, that hey! They can lower the price on something – and that benefits the customers. Or they throw a sale! Yay! Or they have a big outdoor summer bash in their parking lot. Woot!…

    See? Good things.

  6. akemi on January 14th, 2009 10:27 am

    Wow, thank you for this education, Lord Chartland. You are so SO kind, generous, and of course, intelligent!

    Okay, yeah, I do write off things like books I read for my business (like Naomi’s OBS). I guess I didn’t know how to handle returns.

    Now that you are telling us into details how this “unreasonable refund” scheme works — I guess it works for a large company like Nordstrom. I see losing $600 to a petty swindler can be a very cost effective marketing for them.

    But what do you think about smaller businesses facing unreasonable demands from customers or prospects?

  7. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on January 14th, 2009 10:34 am

    Depends on the situation. Toss me out three demands you’d think unreasonable and I’ll tell you what I’d do with them. Make ‘em up. Make ‘em good :)

  8. akemi on January 14th, 2009 1:15 pm

    Nice. Tutoring offer!

    1) This is a real story from the time I was an exec admin. Our company was expecting a VIP visit, and my boss (the president) wanted to make the facility look super clean. So I arranged special housekeeping / landscaping service. The visitor was to arrive at 7am, so they did the work the night before. No trash, no cigarette butts, no fallen leaves on the premise. Next morning, surprise! There were some cigarette butts near the main entrance.

    So my boss got upset, and insisted that our housekeepers (they were outside venders) do the work at 5am next time. I didn’t think this was reasonable for them. They did outstanding job at the closest timeframe they could. But my boss was upset and threatened the housekeeping company for possibly discontinuing their service.

    Do you think they should comply and do the work before dawn? To make my obsessive boss happy?

    2) Let’s make up something in my business. As you know, I offer 100% satisfaction program for my Akashic Record Reading. If a client thinks my reading is just a BS, they just tell me so at the end of the phone session, and I refund all their money. If they think what I have to say is meaningful, then they get the clearing work of their energetic problems. My clients can also email me up to three times with their questions after the phone session.

    The questions are meant as followup obviously. But there have been a few who asked questions about their past lives that were not covered in the reading. Usually, I explain that my reading is clearing-oriented and that is why I didn’t go into that specific past life they were interested in, and they understand. I also let them know that I can do such reading (for specific past life, to satisfy their curiosity) — it just constitutes another reading.

    Now I haven’t had this happen yet, but if a client insists that I should do additional readings (for no extra charge) because he is interested and that is his question, I think that is bending the meaning of followup questions and therefore unreasonable. What do you think?

    I’ll think up the 3rd case. Or if someone has a good case, fire it up to Lord Chartland.

  9. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on January 14th, 2009 1:26 pm

    Love it.

    So my boss got upset, and insisted that our housekeepers (they were outside venders) do the work at 5am next time. I didn’t think this was reasonable for them. They did outstanding job at the closest timeframe they could. But my boss was upset and threatened the housekeeping company for possibly discontinuing their service.

    Do you think they should comply and do the work before dawn? To make my obsessive boss happy?

    I would have done this: Calmly listened and when the boss was done ranting, reassure him that I fully understand how nervous he might feel about making a good impression and that it must be really hard to need to check over everything. People often just want to vent or be heard, so acknowledging his difficulties may have turned his mood around.

    Calmly said that I fully understand about his need for above-excellent service and going the extra-extra-extra mile. I would immediately give him a discount or something to compensate for his disappointment. It doesn’t matter whether he is right or wrong or deserves it – he’s upset. Never leave a customer upset, no matter how much you can’t stand him.

    Then I could offer to 1) charge a huge premium to be in at 5am – with pleasure or 2) sadly say that unfortunately, I’m limited to business hours and that perhaps we aren’t the best company for his needs.

    If he does agree and we part ways, I would (before leaving) help him by referring him to another company who could meet his requests for 5am service.

    1) I’ve lost a client but also lost the stress that goes with it
    2) Tried to part on a good foot and with the best of intentions
    3) Made myself look helpful by referring another company and not leaving him stuck.

    My clients can also email me up to three times with their questions after the phone session.

    The questions are meant as followup obviously. But there have been a few who asked questions about their past lives that were not covered in the reading. Usually, I explain that my reading is clearing-oriented and that is why I didn’t go into that specific past life they were interested in, and they understand. I also let them know that I can do such reading (for specific past life, to satisfy their curiosity) — it just constitutes another reading.

    Now I haven’t had this happen yet, but if a client insists that I should do additional readings (for no extra charge) because he is interested and that is his question, I think that is bending the meaning of followup questions and therefore unreasonable. What do you think?

    While this is a fictitious example, I can already see things you could do to make sure this situation doesn’t happen at all.

    That said, if it were to happen, I would do exactly what the client wants while gently and subtly stressing the value of what he’s getting for what he paid. THEN I’d immediately fix it so that the situation never happens again.


    1. Clarify exactly and specifically what you provide with your service, as well as the restrictions and limitations of that service. It’s okay to say, “I do this, but this is not included.” Just word it nicely.

    2. Confirm with clients who order the limitations before you begin their reading. “Alright, we’re ready to discuss… Before we begin, I just want to remind you that…”

    3. Say no. Give the client a partial discount to compensate for his inconvenience and show good faith, but stand your ground.

    What do you think?

  10. akemi on January 14th, 2009 3:15 pm

    Dear Lord Chartland,

    1) Well, I wasn’t asking how I, back as an admin, could handle angry internal customer, my old boss. Believe me, it was him who could not live without me, not the other way around. He went complete banana when I turned in my resignation. But that is an internal story that I can’t discuss into details here.

    So for the poor housekeepers, I guess what you are suggesting is to keep the line clear while being polite. That is what I’d suggest, too, and is the point of the article. There is no way for the boss to expect special service at dawn at no extra cost: he pays extra or he gets what he always got.

    2) I understand being clear is essential. However, I want to point out that 99% of my clients (real paying clients, not just web visitors) are good people who don’t need to be told the rules. They are graceful and proud like yourself. (Yes, I have great clients, and for that I am proud, too!)

    So I see a potential problem about being too wordy in my web sales copy. Again, the example is pretty fictitious. Even when the clients ask about other past lives, usually that is just simple questions, and when I explain how things work in my practice, they understand.

    Having said that, if any clients push his way and say I should do extra reading for free and if I don’t, I’m no good, I would tell him he is the one bending the rule. I don’t think bending over to the very few unreasonable demands is good for my overall business.

  11. Ruth on January 15th, 2009 11:07 am

    I run a small blog consulting business and have generally found that hourly pricing works for me when a client has some crazy and involved request. I’ve learned to be careful to specify exactly what any of my one-price packages involves and then when feature creep happens I normally say that I’d be happy to do that at my hourly rate. I find not even mentioning the possibility that it might be in the package (by saying outright that it isn’t) makes things smoother. I also estimate the number of hours it’ll take so they get a sense of how hard/expensive it’ll be.

    If it’s something I just can’t do or that I don’t have the time for, I recommend others I know who might be better-suited or who I know to be reputable.

    Ruths last blog post..Judge Not? Why Not?

  12. akemi on January 15th, 2009 5:48 pm

    Hi, thanks for stopping by. I think you handle the issues very well.
    I do have mixed feelings about hourly pricing vs package deal — perhaps when I figure it out, I’ll write another post on it.

  13. Ruth on January 15th, 2009 6:38 pm

    I’ve found that hourly pricing and package deals are both necessary at times. Suppose that I’m going to install WordPress on a client’s site. Actually installing it and changing all the initial settings may take less than an hour. Does this mean I should just charge for an hour of work?

    Some might say that I’m a prostitute for wanting more ;) but I think that all the time I’ve spent learning about this on my own, all the experience I bring, etc, make that hour of work worth more than an average hour I spend working.

    But on the other hand, I don’t want to set a price for something if I don’t know how long it’s going to take and how much effort. I’ve put a lot of thought into my hourly rate, which helps.

    Ruths last blog post..Judge Not? Why Not?

  14. akemi on January 15th, 2009 9:25 pm

    Well, as a consumer, I don’t really care how long, say my web designer takes to get the work done that I asked her to do. What I care is she gets it done by a reasonable timeframe, and I want to see beautiful work. If it only takes her 1 hour, that is fine. If it takes her 10 hours, okay. I don’t know the standard in her area of work, so I always ask for estimates upfront. She may be calculating it by hourly, but for me, it’s almost like package deal. And I want her to get it done within that budget, unless I ask her additional work. Now she may find the work taking longer than she thought (or shorter, for that matter), but I don’t think that is my concern.

    Do you see my point? But I know some people don’t like working this way.

  15. Anthony Lawrence on January 19th, 2009 2:04 pm

    Just because that paragraph is a little vague: I am NOT the one who called James a prostitute :-)

    At some other point of time, in a different context, I may have drawn comparisons to a hockey puck, but not a prostitute. I’m not sure about the hockey puck either: that may have been someone else.

  16. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on January 19th, 2009 2:06 pm

    @ Tony – I love how you felt the need for a disclaimer ;)

  17. Anthony Lawrence on January 19th, 2009 2:10 pm

    “I love how you felt the need for a disclaimer ;)

    Well, I suppose some might think tossing such barbs is appropriate, but really I was afraid of your legions of fans descending upon me with pitchforks, bags of feathers and bubbling tar..

    I did NOT call that man a prostitute!

  18. akemi on January 19th, 2009 3:49 pm

    Hi Tony and James,
    Is that paragraph confusing? I put Tony’s name as a GOOD example of offering feedback — not agreeing with James but not calling him names.

    BTW I’m having second thoughts about the marketing effect Nordstrom can expect for refunding Canadian Tire’s tires. Sure that makes a good sticky story, but is the effect positive? Can in point — I thought it was stupid Nordstrom did such a thing and didn’t shop there for a while.

  19. I. Savant on July 30th, 2009 11:18 pm

    Thanks for your advice. I just had an incident today at my business–a mother (who paid her son’s bill) and her son (my client) first of all came to my office without confirming their appointment–even though my office had called them over 7 times today requesting that they confirm their appointment. At first, the son even said he did not receive the calls, but then when he checked his messages, he said he received 2 of them. Then, they came into my office, and they both seemed to be a little on the edge. The mother (in her late 50′s) sitll ran the show for her son (in his late 30′s). She has the audacity to tell me that she was getting that feeling in her stomach that something was not right. I became suspicious that her fake complaints were really a request for a refund. When the cat was out of the bag, when i asked the son to do some work on his case, then the mother interjected and mentioned that she wanted the unused money from her son’s retainer returned. She told me he needed to win, which I told her that it appeared, upon my research in this case, that the likelihood of him winning was slim to none (with none winning at the end of the day). Unfortunately, these types of people bring out the worse in me–I know I have done my job–they just want a refund to go to use and abuse another attorney.
    When I figured the money used, and the money to be refunded, then the mother was being pseudo-nice–thank you–thank you–I could not say you’re welcome–then she cracked some vapid joke, and started to laugh, I could not even laugh, but I showed both the door.
    Please sons and daughters over 25, grow up–don’t let your mommy and daddy lead the show and tell you to your face that you are not smart. Also, make your own choices–no matter how difficult it is.
    Thank you.