5 Ways to Deal With an Unreasonable Customer

There’s a great scene in Seinfeld where Jerry goes to a rental car counter to pick up a midsized car he reserved. When she checks the computer, the agent at the counter tells Jerry there are no midsized cars left. “But the reservation keeps the car here,” Jerry says. “That’s why you have the reservation.” And when the agent says, “I know why we have reservations,” Jerry responds, “I don’t think you do.”

Then Jerry explains where he thinks the rental car company’s process broke down: “You know how to take the reservation — you just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can just take them.”

As a product manager, the temptation to take an approach similar to this fictitious rental car company — to say yes to everyone, whether or not you can fulfill your promises to them, and whether or not doing so is even a smart decision — can be overwhelming. After all, you will have more requests and demands for your product than you can ever possibly meet. The easy answer — easy in the moment, at least, but much more difficult later — is to try to fulfill them all.

But before you agree to any unreasonable customer requests to add to or change your product, you always want to ask yourself at least these two questions first:

  1. Will fulfilling this request represent a strategically advantageous (and defensible) decision for the product and our company?
  2. Is meeting this request even feasible, given the company’s resources?

Only after you are able to answer both of these questions with a “yes” can you then step back and make an informed decision about how to address the customer’s request or demand. And more often than not, when you ask yourself these questions, you will find that your customer is asking for something that is — even if they have the best of intentions in asking — unreasonable.

Dealing with unreasonable customers is an inevitable part of a product manager’s job. But there are ways to make these moments easier and more productive for both your customer and your company.

1. Don’t create an unreasonable customer in the first place.

In that scene in Seinfeld, the rental car company itself was completely responsible for creating an unsatisfied, angry customer. The company could have easily avoided the problem altogether, simply by being more careful about the promises it made.

The scene is exaggerated for humor, of course, but many product managers take a similarly shortsighted approach — and try to please everyone — when they are feeling overwhelmed with requests or demands on their product.

The easiest thing in the world, at least in the moment, is to respond positively when a customer asks you to add a feature to your product, or to prioritize something now that is slated well into the future on your product roadmap, or to make any number of other changes to satisfy their specific needs, as opposed to the needs of your company and your user base as a whole.

It can also feel tempting to make grand promises in a roadmap you’re sharing with the public. After all, a roadmap can serve as important strategic marketing and sales document, and the more groundbreaking you can make your new product or the next release of an existing product, the more attention and enthusiasm you can generate.

But you need to temper your understandable drive to satisfy and even delight your customers with the real-world constraints on your product’s development — a limited budget, limited resources, and the limited patience of your executives or investors, for example.

You won’t be able to please everyone — certainly not those customers who ask you for the world. Sometimes your best strategy will be to set expectations at a reasonable level as early in your development as you can.

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“Don’t create an unreasonable customer later because by over-promising now.”

Don’t create an unreasonable customer later because by over-promising now.

(By the way, here is an example of an organization that manages its public roadmap brilliantly.)

2. Be clear and candid about what your product will and won’t do.

One of the best examples of this approach is Southwest Airlines, arguably the most successful low-cost commercial airline ever.

From its earliest days, Southwest created a very clear mission, which it shared with the public: We are going to be a low-cost airline firmly committed to delivering the best possible service while keeping our overhead — and prices to our customers — as low as possible by not adding any frills.

In practice, this meant being candid about saying no — no inflight meals (light snacks and beverages only), no tiered seating classes, etc.

Indeed, Southwest was so open and enthusiastic about the services they didn’t offer that they turned them from negatives to positives with their customers. And today, only a completely uninformed traveler or an outright lunatic would demand Southwest give them a first-class seat or serve them a steak dinner inflight.

You can do something similar — be extremely clear and candid about what your product does and doesn’t do. If you take the Southwest approach, and explain proactively that you have intentionally stripped your product of all but the essential functionality needed to solve your customer’s problem while still offering the lowest-cost product available, then your customers will likely walk away satisfied.

3. When speaking to an unreasonable customer, do not commit on the spot.

The first two suggestions were to help you avoid as many confrontations with unreasonable customers as possible in the first place. We believe that you do have control over some of these confrontations, and by taking those steps above, you can minimize them.

But what happens when you are actually faced with an unreasonable customer, someone who contacts you to demand that you make concessions with your product to meet their needs?

There are a few things you’ll want to know when you find yourself in this uncomfortable moment, and we’ll discuss them in the next few tips. Our first suggestion, though, and perhaps the most important, is not to commit to any demand on the spot.

The reason it’s so important to start with this tip is that in these moments, the conversation can get emotional — both for you and for your customer. They might be very adamant about what they want or what they believe your product should do for them. And you might really want to please that customer — or just end the conversation and do so on a positive note.

So before you can even take such a call, you want to be pre-armed with a standard policy that you can easily and automatically fall back on: You will take your customer’s demand into consideration, but you can’t promise anything until you have spoken with your colleagues or conducted your own research on the question.

You can even create a standard, go-to phrase for these conversations: “That’s something worth investigating, and I will look into it, but I never commit to any product changes without first discussing it with my team.” Something like that.

Find a statement that feels natural to you, and practice it so you’re ready to answer even the most passionate, aggressive customer demand on the spot — without being caught off-guard and committing to something you’ll regret.

4. When speaking to a demanding customer, take the time to truly listen, and make sure the person feels heard.

This is one of the most common strategies employed by human resources professionals, the people in business who deal most frequently with interpersonal conflict.

What many HR professionals will tell you is that often, when an employee comes in to file a grievance, what they really want is simply to be heard and to feel as though someone understands their issue. And often, after the employee has had a chance to air his grievance in front of HR, without interruption and without feeling judged, he is satisfied and no longer feels the need to officially pursue the matter.

When a customer contacts you to tell you that your product really needs to add a feature or to move some functionality to a more convenient location in the application, sometimes the best answer you can give that person is, “You’re right. We really should have done it that way.” Or, “I completely understand your point. It must be frustrating not to be able to do it the way you’d prefer.”

And as powerful as this simple approach is for HR, when it comes to product management, there are additional benefits to truly listening to your customer and making them feel understood. For example…

You might learn something valuable from that customer.

If your first instinct when confronted with an upset customer is to shut that person down, you risk missing out on some valuable user feedback.

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“If you shut down an upset customer, you risk missing out on some valuable user feedback.”

Perhaps listening to your customer will uncover a truth about your product that you’ve overlooked — something that might be able to help not only this customer but your product as well.

You might get a chance to teach your customer something valuable to them.

If you truly listen to your customer, and perhaps ask some probing questions to guide them to the crux of their issue with your product, you might find that the functionality they’re missing is actually available elsewhere in your product. In other words, by fully hearing your customer out, you might find you’re able to solve their problem after all.

And — here’s a bonus — you might find that the way you’ve been positioning your product has been incorrect or incomplete, because perhaps other customers wish they had the same functionality and don’t realize that they already do!

5. Don’t engage an unreasonable customer complaint or demand via email; pick up the phone.

Resorting to email is a common approach taken by product managers and any professionals who have to have difficult conversations. Why? Because it’s easier than actually hearing the other party and having to respond in real-time. But a lot of context and subtext — indeed, a lot of truth — doesn’t come through in an email message.

So when it’s time to have that difficult conversation with a customer, don’t take the easy way out and confine the discussion to reading and typing. Get on the phone and talk to her.

There are several benefits to this approach for you and for your product.

First, when you get on the phone with your unreasonable customer, if you can keep a level head, listen more than you talk and respond calmly and respectfully, you’ll often find you can defuse an otherwise tense or even hostile situation. It will be a lot more difficult for your customer to remain angry with you if you calmly and rationally explain to her that, while you understand her wishes, you have your own constraints and limitations on your product.

Second, when you truly listen to your customer — which is much more likely when she’s speaking directly to you than when you’re simply reading her words in an email — you’ll often uncover a lot of useful feedback about your product.

The same principles that apply in your personal life apply to your role as a product manager — get on the phone, hear each other out, get to the bottom of the problem, and work to find a solution that will benefit everyone.

Do you have experience handling an unreasonable or angry customer? What did you do? What lessons did you learn? Please share below.