Sales Q&A: Tips on how to deal with customers

Feb. 2, 2015
Some advice on late payments, repos and how to handle chatty customers.

When I informally ask veteran dealers what they like best about being a mobile tool dealer, “dealing with customers” usually makes the top three list. It’s right up there with “working for myself” and “financial independence.” 

When I ask newbie dealers what they hate most about being a mobile tool dealer, “dealing with customers” often makes the top three list. 

Either the newbies that hate dealing with customers bail out before they make it to my veteran dealer category or something changes in their attitude about customers to get them over the hump.

I’d like to think it’s the latter. Learning to deal with customers may be one of the things that will take you from novice to dealer-of-the-year award winner.

Here are some ideas that just might help you earn a trophy at your next annual dealer meeting.

Q: I get really angry when a customer drags out payments. What should I do?

A: You should be angry. It’s your money. But, raging and fighting rarely resolves anything.

Realize that many customers don’t know that it’s your money on the street. Rather than starting a shouting match, try explaining that when they buy a tool it’s money out of your pocket. Let him know that when he doesn’t pay on time that it affects your paycheck.

If he doesn’t respond to that, then I’d haul off and slug him. (Kidding! Don’t take this column to court if you get arrested. I don’t endorse hitting customers.)

Seriously, whatever you do, don’t let anger get the best of you. There will always be slow paying customers. Don’t take it personally.

Q: I have a customer that’s a few weeks behind. He always seems to be on a test drive or out to lunch when I show up at his shop. What should I do?

A: Give him the benefit of the doubt. Call his cell phone. If it takes you to voicemail, leave a message and give him a day to get back to you. I once had a deadbeat client block my number. Calls to his cell phone just went dead. So, I kept calling from different phones until he realized he couldn’t avoid me.

You might even try They sell a calling card that let’s you change or “spoof” what comes up on caller ID. It got a rise out of my wife, Beth, when I called her from Cook County Jail one April Fool’s Day. But I’ve never used it in business. I’d consult a lawyer on the legality of that, first. (Again, don’t take this column to court if you get arrested…)

If he’s unresponsive, text or leave a voicemail saying you’re charging the credit card you have on file for him tomorrow for whatever is past due in full. (You do have a card number on file I hope, don’t you?)

If he calls or texts you back to protest, good. You’ve hit a nerve. Better to get a reaction than keep getting ignored. Share the blame. Explain you’ve missed him the past couple of weeks and he needs to catch up on missed payments ASAP. If he can’t pay everything at once, ask him what he can do. Be friendly but firm. If he sets the payment plan, he can’t complain in the future that you pushed him to pay more than he can afford.

Don’t have a credit card on file? Let this serve as a lesson: always get a credit card when you open a new account. And check it quarterly to be sure it hasn’t expired. Even the most honest guy in the world can have a streak of bad luck and start avoiding you.   

One dealer I know catches his “deadbeats” off-guard, by stopping on a different day and time than usual. If your customer is not expecting you, he won’t likely have a planned escape route! It’s much harder to avoid paying someone face-to-face than it is by text or phone.

Q: How far should I let a customer fall behind? What should I do if he’s too far?

One week behind can be too far behind. But once it gets to be two or three weeks, it’s time to become firm with your customer. Your first goal is to increase his weekly payment, not stretch it out more. If you can’t do that, you need to keep a short leash of weeks.

What if you can’t come to an agreement or he fails to honor his agreement? It’s time to repossess the tool. It’s awkward, but don’t be embarrassed. It’s not your fault.

Avoid being rude or angry. It’s not likely he started out not planning to pay you back. Just explain in a business-like tone that you need the tool back. A good strategy is to offer to hold the tool for a couple weeks until he can get together the cash to pay you in full. That may make it less awkward.

You may want to repossess the tool in his bay, or follow him to his bay to get it. I’ve heard a horror story or two about a disgruntled customer breaking a tool before returning it.

If he can’t come through on time, sell the used tool to someone else for at least what he owes. He can always buy another new tool -- cash upfront. 

And once you’ve been down this road, I don’t think I need to tell you that he becomes a cash-only customer for a long, long time to come.

Q: I have a customer that is a real talker. He wastes a lot of my time and really doesn’t buy all that much. What should I do?

A: Here’s what I’d do: give him my undivided attention for about a full minute making eye contact. Then I shut down any non-business talk with polite “uh huhs," look busy and avoid eye contact. If he’s not too dense, he’ll get the sense that you don’t have time to chat. If he's just not getting it, simply say “I’d love to talk, but I’ve got a busy schedule today.” 

But never be too busy to talk tools -- unless he isn’t buying from you.

Q: My route is full of terrible customers. What can I do to change them?

A: I’m not sure what you mean by terrible customers. Sounds like a contradiction in terms. If they’re a customer, they can’t be that terrible.

Here's an old story. Stop me if you've heard it:

An old man is sitting in front of a gas station enjoying the scenery. A guy in a sports car drives up and says he’s from out of town but is thinking of moving here.

“How are the people in this town?”

“How do you find people where you’re from?” the old man asks.


“I think you’ll find them the same here,” says the old man.

The man drives off. A bit later a woman in a pickup truck drives up with the same question.

“How do you find people where you’re from?” the old man asks again.


“I think you’ll find them the same here,” says the old man with a smile.

The point is, often people are what we make of them. Give your customers a chance. I think you’ll find if you start to have fun and enjoy them, they become terrific, too.

Q: When should I fire a customer?

A: Just short of never.

I’m not asking you to become best friends with everyone and invite them to your kid’s birthday party. I’m just saying I see very few situations where firing a customer makes sense.

If you have a personality conflict, try to work it out. If they’re buying from you and paying on time, there is not much reason to stop doing business. If they aren’t buying exclusively from you, don't worry about that.

Besides, if you want to “fire” him, chances are you want to give him a piece of your mind, too. I’d hold my tongue. Your mind is too valuable to give away.

The only customer to fire is the one that’s not paying you. In that case, see my first few answers above.

By the way, what I avoided mentioning in my introduction above is that “dealing with customers” often ends up on both the love list and the hate list of many veteran dealers.

I believe it’s not the customers. It’s how you deal with them. 

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