Photo by Francisco
A month ago I received a sales inquiry via email for my invoicing software package. The prospect asked if we could complete the questions he had attached in a spreadsheet:
I will need the attached questions answered in order to proceed as I can’t get them all answered off your website.
There were nearly 80 questions, at least half of which could be answered from our website.
In addition, he mentioned doing a flat-file exchange of data between our software and a custom piece his colleague had written. I mentioned that we have a .NET API or a web service layer, and that passing flat files back and forth would not be an optimal approach for a few reasons.
And that’s when it started to get good.
A snippet from his disgruntled reply:
My colleague is a computer engineer and has been programming for over 25 years so he knows what he’s doing. I just need pricing and questions answered at this point, thanks.
Wow, nice guy so far! I wasn’t trying to bust his chops, just letting him know about a potentially better approach.
After a few more emails back and forth it became obvious that not only might our system not be a good fit, but this prospect was very well not a good fit for our company.
It was apparent to me that even if this person bought our software after what looked to be an extensive due diligence likely to take up several hours, that our trouble would be just getting started.
Few things are worse than supporting a demanding, entitled customer who feels that their purchase price buys them control over your life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. I’ve run into my fair share over the past several years, and I call them Toxic Customers.
I’ve had toxic customers pull all of the following:
- Call my cell phone five times in 5 hours on Memorial Day (A U.S. Holiday). The customer was U.S.-based and aware of the holiday.
- Demand (not just ask for) support outside of our standard support hours because he was busy at his day job during our normal hours.
- Consume 10 hours of support time over 2 months because he did not follow the installation instructions properly, and did not perform the troubleshooting steps I sent in my first response to his ticket. 30+ emails later I logged into his system, performed one check and found the issue.
- And on, and on…
And while you (luckily) won’t encounter many toxic customers during your lifetime, after the first few you learn how to identify and gracefully step away when you see them coming. This is because toxic customers are not just a hassle, they can chew up support time, cost you money, damage your reputation by posting to Twitter/forums/review sites, and stress you to the point of wanting to commit an act of violence on yourself or others.
Early Detection is Key
After dealing with several toxies over the past few years I’ve begun to watch for warning signs during the sales process, and have become more adept at identifying potentially harmful customers early on in the process.
Any one of these warning signs is not a big deal, but stack 2 or 3 on top of each other and (depending on their severity) you have yourself a red flag.
Warning Sign #1: Disrespectful or Abrupt
People sometimes act as if they are not emailing a real person, and that’s ok. Sometimes we’ll receive an apology after we reply with a respectful answer.
The person might be in a hurry, they might not know email etiquette, or they might be a jerk. It takes several emails to figure it out.
Warning Sign #2: Asks for a Discount (With No Reason)
Perhaps the second most common red flag is someone who asks for a discount with no real justification. We always work with particular circumstances, especially schools and non-profits. But asking us to drop our price by 25% or 30% just for kicks is not typically a sign of an outstanding customer.
Warning Sign #3: Multiple Contacts, Often Through Multiple Channels
One of my favorites is to receive 3 emails (one each to our sales, support and info addresses), and a voice mail from the same person within a few minutes.
The request is not time-sensitive, the person just want to make sure someone receives it. And we do receive it…four times.
I’ve never really understood this one; either they are really anxious to have their question answered, or they don’t believe they are going to hear back. Either way, if you have to send four requests in order to hear back do you really want to buy software from that company?
Warning Sign #4: Unrealistic Expectations
Another good one is receiving 4 emails in two hours with escalating urgency, all surrounding a non-time sensitive pre-sales question that can typically be answered on our website. Something like:
Is your software localized for Australia?
10 minutes later:
I wanted to make sure you received the previous email. Is your software localized for Australia?
30 minutes later:
Hello, is anyone there? I haven’t heard back from my previous email. Is your software localized for Australia?
20 minutes later:
WHY AREN’T YOU ANSWERING? DOES YOUR SOFTWARE HANDLE AUSTRALIAN DOLLARS OR NOT?!
Warning Sign #5: Multiple Questions that Can Be Answered from Your Website
This one is common, and far from a deal-breaker. But it could be a warning sign of a future support burden, especially if you have an installation process that requires them to read and perform a list of steps.
Now Back to the Story…
With the next step of filling out the 80 question spreadsheet staring me in the face, I opted to let the person know that our company was not a good fit for their needs. I wrapped up our conversation with:
Thanks very much for your interest. I think you will be better off finding another invoicing solution.
Turns out we were just getting started. A few hours later I received the following (snipped for brevity):
Please explain why you are recommending I find another product. I don’t appreciate being sent off without an explanation. I will make that decision, not you. If it won’t work tell me why, don’t just tell me to find another product.
If you don’t want to work with me that’s fine, just forward me to another sales rep, but don’t shoe me off. I’m trying to conduct business here, I don’t have time for games. One last thing Rob, why don’t you use a last name?
Bingo! I especially liked the comment about my last name.
Yes, I happened to sign an email without my last name. Definitely a sign that I am hiding something, and that my company and/or software is woefully deficient in many ways.
I wrapped up our conversation by respectfully pointing out that at our price point we are unable to handle a manual sales process where we answer a large number of questions that can be answered from our website. I also mentioned the following:
I’m confident that in the end, if you purchase, your approach of using test file between applications is going to turn into a support headache. We don’t recommend that approach and are not willing to support it.
I genuinely think you will not be happy with our application and will be better off with a different solution. We reserve the right to sell our software (or not) to whom we choose, and I do not see this as a good fit for either party.
So once again, thanks for your interest. Best of luck finding a solution that fits your needs.
I had done my best to make this interaction as respectful as possible, without watering down the message. The bottom line is that I was pretty sure that this was not someone we wanted as a customer (and was willing to wager a sale on it). I’d been down this path before.
The next morning I received the following email from someone at the same company:
My colleague is the wrong person to be heading up this project and I apologize for his monster list. Can we hit the reset button on this please? Our needs are really pretty simple.
He listed four bullet points, all of which we handle out of the box. We exchanged 2 or 3 emails and he purchased within a week.
If you’ve dealt with a toxic customer let’s discuss it in the comments.