A decorator was in a bind: His customer’s event was the next day, and the PMS colors in the art file didn’t match the ones listed on the purchase order. To make matters worse, the decorator couldn’t reach his client, so his team had a 50/50 chance of choosing the correct color. Unfortunately, they chose wrong, and the client was unhappy with the order.

Customer expectations are more demanding than ever before and the need to ‘get it right’ each time is extremely high. Marshall Atkinson, a Phoenix-based decorated-apparel success coach who offers hands-on training via his Shirt Lab events, concurs and cites this statistic below as a reason why decorators and distributors need to take this seriously.

According to Microsoft, 54% of global consumers say that they have higher customer service expectations than they did just one year ago. In addition, 52% of people worldwide believe that companies need to take action on feedback provided by their customers.

To keep up with these dynamic requests, customer service and problem solving must be a priority in your decorated-apparel firm. “Business today doesn’t work the way it did in 1987,” Atkinson says. “You have to continuously evolve your customers’ experience. That’s on you. You have to teach your new hires how to work with all types of customers.”

4 Challenging Customer Archetypes

Here are four types of challenging customer situations—and how you can turn them into opportunities.

1. Customers who shop on price

Atkinson advises decorators and distributors to be wary of customers who won’t budge on pricing and say they can get their order cheaper from someone else. The first step: Don’t sell commodities; sell solutions. “Stop selling the ink on the T-shirt,” he says. “If your customer has an event, explain that you use the best designers who’ll blow their minds with the artwork you’ll produce. Give them an option that they can’t compare to another shop.”

Jonathan Ornelas, owner of San Angelo, TX-based, Success Print Shop suggests considering the true cost of working with a customer who undervalues your hard work. “Say an ‘up-and-coming’ clothing brand has a pretty complex order and they’re pushing you to lower your prices. The time you spend with this customer is a big opportunity cost that could potentially be better spent with another client or in various, more rewarding ways.”

The good news is that you don’t have to turn away price-shopping customers immediately. “For those looking for a bargain, ask for their budget range and present to them items in their price-point range,” says Roy Harper, owner and designer at Los Angeles-based gBONA gBONA ASO.

Alternately, you could ask a client what it would take for them to buy from you today. “If they say, ‘I need this screen-printed shirt to be $500 cheaper,’” Atkinson says, “you can switch to printing on just one side. Then, you might have more room for extra colors or to add to the design concept.”

If these tactics don’t work, it may be time to disengage from the client—and know that walking away could be the best thing for your business. “There’s always someone who’ll pay you more, so why are you struggling to get that tire-kicker customer?” Atkinson says. “Some people want a fixer-upper car and others buy the $150,000 Mercedes. Both types of customers are out there, and you can choose who you want to work with.”

2. Customers who are vague about artwork

Atkinson says that decorators and designers should never have to reach proof six or seven. “When I was an art director, I wanted to have an 85% or better first-time artwork approval rating, and we tracked why people made changes,” he says. “We developed 15 to 20 questions that help us write a creative brief so our designer can nail the artwork the first time. ‘Do something cool’ is horrible advice to give a designer.”

Start by asking your client if they have a logo and company colors. Then, Atkinson suggests fishing for adjectives that describe the design: sporty, classy, humorous, fun, professional, energetic or calm. Ask more questions: What should someone think and feel when they see the design? How are you using the shirt—selling it or giving it away at a tradeshow? Will it be worn by kids? Will the shirt be relabeled or packaged? Will it be made from sustainable fabrics?

Then, take it a step further. Let’s say your client asks for a monkey on a bicycle. You can ask questions like: Is it a realistic monkey or a cartoon like Curious George? Is it a road bike or a mountain bike? Is the monkey in profile or is he riding toward you? Is he holding a banana? Do you have examples of designs you used previously or similar ideas?

Atkinson also creates thumbnails: “That’s when I draw quick little sketches with different design layouts on square Post-It notes,” he says. “The layout is often what customers change the most, so you get to the approved result faster when you have these options. I stick the Post-It to my monitor as I build my layout. This is also a good way to create original layouts and develop your design voice.”

3. Customers with communication challenges

“We hear a lot of complaints from decorators about consumers creating friction and delay in the sales process by not being responsive,” says JP Hunt, co-founder at Tempe, AZ-based InkSoft. He suggests using urgency and a hard production date as an incentive for your customer to get back to you quickly. “Say, ‘I know you need your T-shirts in-hands on “x” date. To secure a production date to meet your goals, I need you to approve and pay by “x” date.’”

In many cases though, information gaps usually stem from miscommunication. “Sometimes it’s an education thing, where they might not know what to ask or tell you,” Atkinson says. “Challenging customers can just be that impasse between what’s known and what’s not known. Sometimes it’s personality. Still, it’s up to you to have an onboarding process that minimizes these gaps.”

Atkinson coaches business owners to create a thorough customer checklist, which includes getting all the pertinent details about an order: garment types, sizes, ship-to addresses and in-hand date. You should also review your customer’s artwork and layout and ask them to approve proofs in a timely manner. Make sure you have names and contact info of two people you can reach out to with questions should you need immediate help (like the decorator from the opening anecdote).

Hunt suggests removing unnecessary friction and steps. “Can you centralize art approvals, product details, price, payment terms, delivery details, and communication in one place?” he says.

And what if a good customer needs a quick turn? “It’s even more important that you get details like artwork and garment sizes sorted up front so you can deliver on time,” Ornelas says. “You need to be in constant communication with your customer.”

Ornelas is also upfront with customers about certain things his shop doesn’t offer like custom neck labels, hem tags and water-based printing. In this case, it’s helpful to seek out a reliable sub-contracting source that you’re confident can deliver a quality product you’re proud to put your brand name on.

“Customers are often defined as ‘difficult’ by one person’s perspective,” says Don Forsell, president of Oswego, IL-based Show Your Logo Inc. “If one of our employees feels that a customer is too ‘difficult’ to work with, we encourage that they pass the customer to another employee willing to take on the challenge, perhaps in trade for one of that employee’s ‘difficult’ customers.”

4. Customers who don’t respect your terms

Another challenging customer archetype is the one who “needs something really quickly, but wants to take forever to pay,” Ornelas says. “I let those customers know that we have penalties for late payments.”

If you know the customer has a reputation of late payments, Atkinson recommends asking for total payment upfront. “Often, when people pay at the outset, they’ll approve artwork quickly and do what we ask them to do,” he says. “You shouldn’t be chasing the money and waiting 30, 60, or 90 days for the payment.”

Hunt proposes that there’s a new movement among savvy decorators to get paid in full upfront vs. the status quo of taking deposits and collecting the balance at delivery. “When you don’t get paid upfront, this creates a cash flow crunch and spoils relationships,” Hunt says. Change your payment policies. Stop taking deposits. Seriously. Most consumers expect to pay for goods upfront. Want something from Amazon? You pay for it before you receive it. So, why should your business be different?”

Atkinson echoes this, reminding decorators that professionals don’t work for free. “A customer who doesn’t pay you isn’t a customer. We’re not in business to give things away,” he says. “That said, if you offer certain items like free packaging or artwork as part of your business model, show it zeroed out on your invoice, so at the end of the year you can tell your client how much added value you’ve given them as a result of doing business together.”

If you face repeat problems in your processes, it’s on you as the CEO of your business to fix those bottlenecks to improve the customer experience. “It might cost you money, but that’s the tuition for learning,” Atkinson says. “If you keep making the mistake that’s just bad management and leadership. It takes maturity to realize that sometimes your ‘difficult’ customers only exist because you don’t have an effective process built for gathering information, for example.”

How to Take Ownership of Problems

Dealing with people’s emotions is way more difficult than finding business solutions, Forsell says. “Business decisions are often a simple matter of time and money, which is always easier than relationships,” he says. “People remember the tone of a discussion longer than the words. Solve the business problem, but don’t neglect people’s emotions.”

When you’re dealing with an angry customer, Atkinson recommends first being quiet and just listening. “Then, repeat back what you heard, write it all down and apologize,” he says. “I often use the neutral phrase, ‘help me understand’ to move the conversation forward.” Then, you need to solve the problem.

Remember that sometimes clients are unloading on you and are really upset about something else, so it’s important to get to the heart of the issue without taking it personally. “It’s about being a partner and helping your customers out,” Atkinson says. “Ask them what you could do to make things better. They may ask for a reprint or 50% off, or they may just want to be heard. You may say, ‘I can’t give you 50%, but I can give you 25%.’”

Forsell encourages his employees to own the problem and move quickly to find common ground. “Most people will remember that you solved a problem quickly much longer than they’ll remember the actual problem,” he says. “Emotionally, keep a level head. It may not be your fault, but it is your problem, so own it.”

Then, summarize the action steps you’re going to take to rectify the problem, and document the call so you’re prepared for your next chat with your customer.

Ultimately, it’s about making your customers feel good. Increasing customer retention rates by 5% increases profits by 25% to 95%, according to the Harvard Business Review. “Customer service is tough, and people are often scared of their clients,” Atkinson says. “When someone’s super-awesome and they have a good personality, it helps with the problem. You don’t have to cave.”

To Break Up or Stay Together

Sometimes, you reach a crossroads with a customer and you’re ready to have the talk: “It’s me, not you.” That could include when you and your team are losing money on a particular client and their jobs. “When it looks like diminishing returns in the relationship, I’d sever the ties with as much grace as I could muster,” Harper says.

Or, if you have customers who are genuinely abusive to you or your staff, don’t be afraid to call them on it. “I’ve told plenty of people who are rude and use profanity, ‘You can’t talk to people that way,’” Atkinson says. “If they stop, that’s one thing. If they don’t that’s now a bigger problem.”

In 20 years and tens of thousands of loyal customers, Forsell says, Show Your Logo has only experienced one instance where no employee wanted to work with a particular client. “We explained that we were unable to satisfy her needs and suggested other companies that were better suited to her projects,” he says. “She struggled to find anyone else to work with her and called frequently. We helped her when we could with standard services, but from then on, we did so without putting undue pressure on our suppliers. Eventually, she stopped calling.”

If you’re not ready to break up outright, you can raise your pricing based on the level of extra time you put in with this customer, Ornelas suggests. “If they agree to pay for your efforts, you might be able to deal with the situation better,” he says.

Keep Your Customers Happy—and Loyal

When surveying consumers about what impacts their level of trust with a company, excellent customer service ranked number one, and 52% of consumers say they have made an additional purchase from a company after a positive customer service experience, according to Dimensional Research. On the flip side, 89% of customers have switched to doing business with a competitor following a poor customer experience, according to Harris Interactive.

Ornelas advises acting excited about your customers’ orders, every single time. “Provide the best possible service you can,” he says. “Make the order go as smooth as possible and offer quick responses. Build a store online so people can shop from their smart devices.”

Ultimately, Atkinson says, true customer service is about solving problems. “People don’t know what they don’t know—you have to be the problem solver,” Atkinson says. “Show off your expertise by getting to the root of what’s bothering them and stay in open communication at all times.”

Leave a Reply