Now and again, and thankfully (in my case), extremely rarely, you have a difficult customer. And I’m not just talking about a crotchity old woman who can’t handle the stairs without the aid of the entire ship’s crew or a demanding gentleman who thinks he’s the only customer on board. I’m not even talking about customers we in the trade call “high maintenance”. If you’re a professional, and honestly care about your customers, you should be able to handle “high maintenance” as routine. If you can’t handle “high maintenance” you shouldn’t be in the travel business at all. No, I’m not talking about these easily recognizable types. I’m talking about that certain customer, rare and solitay, who for seemingly deep-seeded reasons perhaps only a psychologist would have a chance at deciphering, finds just every single aspect of your operation to be flawed. Be it the guide or the cabins, the river conditions or the activities, it is all just wrong to this kind of customer from start (usually positive) to finish (a hurricane of abuse then blessed quiet). What an ordeal the difficult customer is for a tour operator, I must say.
I can think of several clichés that might apply to the difficult customer: “it takes just one rotten apple to spoil the bunch”, “the one that got away”, “why do we recall the bad times so much more than the good”, “our fears speak louder than our desires”, “we easily recall nightmares but not dreams”. I could go on and on. The point is that the difficult customer makes a lasting impression. And whether or not in the end that is a negative impression (usually) or a positive one (rarely, I must be honest) is entirely up to you.
“The client is always right”. “We learn from our mistakes”. “Look at the positive side (is there one?)”. These maxims are all fine and dandy, in retrospect, or business school, but how should we honestly act in the company of the difficult customer?
Faced with my last difficult customer I was, at first, calm, cool and businesslike. “I understand there were some problems with the tour”. “You were right to call it quits rather than drag out an unpleasant situation”. “I’m here to listen to you and come to terms over your grievances”. Too bad the difficult customer wants none of this. They’re pissed and there’s really not a lot you can do or say to make them feel better. Better just to lump it, nod in agreement a lot, mutter a lot of yeses, and come to a financial settlement as soon as possible. ‘Cause you should know, right up front, that there is no escaping the inevitable financial settlement which is the only thing that will soothe the difficult customer. He’s hurt. He wants vengeance. And only seeing you grovel and assent to doubling the initial settlement offer will make him back off and give you an excuse to close the discussion and make your retreat with tail between your legs. At least the difficult customer is rarely, if ever, physically violent.
A situation like this hurts, and it should. You’ve staked your claim as someone who can make people’s dreams come true in one of the last Edens on earth. You’ve all but promised the trip of a lifetime to people. And it hurts- it's heartbreaking- when that doesn’t happen despite all your efforts over all the years. It also hurts to think of what the difficult customer must be feeling. He's hurting too. He’s worked his butt off, no doubt, to set up this trip. He’s been saving years for this, and he’s perhaps been dreaming about it since he was a boy. Now that’s he’s finally here, that he’s put his faith in you, and it doesn’t come off! Man, what a letdown. What a deception. Who’s to blame?
The experience of the difficult customer makes me reflect upon many things (that’s good, isn’t it?). What brought me to the Amazon? What is it exactly that I want to show people? Can what they see on Discovery or Animal Planet possibly be recreated on one of my humble tours? It doesn’t help that the difficult customer is in many ways the most unprepared for travel. He’s so full of images, opinions and prejudices that there’s no way on earth you’ll be able to meet his expectations. And unlike other customers the difficult customer possesses no means of adaptation, of going with the flow, of opening up to the new. No, he’s set in his ways before he even arrives, and it almost seems at times that there was nothing you could have done to prepare for him. It was bound to be a disaster no matter what.
Nonetheless you learn from your mistakes. The guide had no passion, the difficult customer says. So, have a chat with the guide. The boat could have been tidier, the difficult customer said. So, have a chat with the captain. The climatic conditions could have been better, the difficult customer said. So, have a chat with God…or take care of global warming if you find that easier.
What I do think important for all customers to feel, to avoid them becoming difficult ones, is that everyone in your operation takes pride in what they are doing and in the world they are showing off. People come from all over the world to see the Amazon because they believe it is special and that it is threatened. Your customers care about the Amazon. Their payment demonstrates that very clearly. And they have chosen to tour with you because they feel they have the best chance of seeing and experiencing what is special about the Amazon with you. That’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of weight on one person’s shoulders. But that should make you happy and proud. So what’s the problem, you find yourself saying after a run-in with the difficult customer? You’ve done your all once again. You’ve given your customer a great guide and a good boat, and free reign to hike and canoe as much as he wants to in search of wildlife, solitude, nirvana, or whatever it is he’s after down deep. What went wrong then that turned your dotting client into the difficult customer? Did you do something wrong? Who dropped the ball? How can you avoid creating more difficult customers in the future?
I think we can agree that difficult customers are not born. Some customers will always be high maintenance, sure, nothing you can do about that. But difficult customers do not arrive at the boat on Day 1 as difficult customers. Surely no one is predisposed to be difficult, not on vacation in one of the world’s last and most exuberant wild places. No, the downhill spiral toward difficult customer is a building-block sort of thing, a domino effect. It starts with something going wrong Day 1, something seemingly trivial at the time…a faulty or weak air-conditioner, a spider web in the bathroom, a fly over lunch, a shorter than expected first walk in the forest. And when one little thing after another starts happening then the die is soon cast; the already expectant customer is on his way to becoming the difficult customer.
But now I see the solution. I see what must be present above all to insure success on our tours. It’s passion and enthusiasm. If the customer doesn’t sense passion and enthusiasm in his operator, guides and boat crews he will soon be well on his way to becoming a difficult customer. He needs only the addition of a few trivial things going wrong. Passion and enthusiasm, however, can prevent all this and insure that despite a few little things going wrong, as they do on every tour, the always demanding customer will never again become the dreaded difficult customer.
Mark Aitchison (Ask Mister Amazon)