If you work as a professional seamstress, sooner or later you will come across a difficult customer.
This doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible seamstress or businessperson. It does undoubtedly mean that you’re learning and growing – you will learn more from this client than any other.
In this article I’ll share what I’ve learnt in difficult situations over the years, and show you how to avoid these distressing times in the first place.
As a bridal dressmaker, corsetier and costume maker I have had my fair share of client orders (and would-be client orders) blow up in my face over the years. Every situation has been different, every one has been enormously painful and difficult, and every one has taught me something hugely valuable. As awful as they were, my biggest pains in the behind were my biggest gifts.
Each difficult client has shown up something I need to do differently to avoid tough situations in the future. That’s the best way to deal with them. The angst and pain of an order gone bad is unique every time and can be complex to tease out and solve. The best plan of attack is to cut the possibility of a bad situation off before it can begin.
So if you do get into difficulties, sort it out as best you can and then, after it’s over, think about it deeply in the cold light of day. What could you have done to stop the client becoming difficult in the first place?
Let me show you what I’ve learned (most of it from brides, who can be the ultimate test of any businessperson) so that you can avoid some of the painful crying fits and sleepless nights I’ve had. I can’t claim to know it all, but here are the conclusions I've come to.
Customers get difficult for one of four reasons.
1 - Outside factors
There are people out there whose orders will blow up in your face no matter what – they do exist. They’ll appear to create problems out of nowhere, and no matter what you say, you won’t seem to be able to save the situation.
What’s the warning sign that you need to spot before you begin? Stress. Lots of it.
The people who make tiny, solvable details into enormous I-want-my-money-back-NOW problems are generally people who have another large source of stress in their lives. It’s important that you spot these people early on and either dissuade them from using you or encourage them to scale back their plans (and their stress level) to something manageable.
A note about brides
However, please note that this does not mean that you should never deal with brides. Some costumers and dressmakers have sworn off brides for life. They had one difficult one and then labelled all brides as stinkers, but that’s harsh. I have known some very laid back brides who’ve been wonderful to deal with. The trick is not to spot stress - we all have stress in our lives. The trick is to spot overwhelming stress, and the trick with brides is to look out for those who have extra stress in addition to the fact that they're getting married. This might include brides who are
- Disorganised or “flaky”, having trouble organising their wedding even at an early stage
- Planning unrealistically or trying to do too much
- Having trouble dealing with other stressful factors on top of the wedding – difficult relatives, long and stressful working hours, disorderly children, illness, etc.
Even if your client is not getting married, these rules of thumb can still apply. If they have tight deadlines, say, or a worry about money or their relationship, that doesn’t automatically mean that they’ll be difficult. But if any source of stress in their lives threatens to become overwhelming, or if they have multiple sources of stress, they may become difficult and appear almost to create problems out of nothing. THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
As a bespoke maker, you are about to make something on trust that it will fit and look good when it's finished, which is a very unusual way to buy clothes in our age. You are getting involved in this person’s life as a significant extra stress factor. Consider this before you take them on.
What you can do
At the outset, chat naturally and get to know the client. If you smell a lot of stress, steer clear. Alternatively, encourage them to scale right back on what they order from you, or encourage them to order later, at a calmer time in their lives.
2 - Lack of communication
The second reason a client order can go wrong is due to a lack of communication. Here's an example.
Early in my career I made a wedding gown for a lovely bride. All was going well until the final fitting, when it all suddenly crashed around my ears. I’ll admit it: I made a mistake. I’d cut the hem of the dress slightly too short. There she stood at the final fitting... in an ankle length wedding gown.
I stayed calm and explained that this wasn’t a problem. There were still two weeks before the wedding, I reminded her. This sort of situation was exactly the reason I aimed always to finish wedding gowns a couple of weeks early. I’d simply buy more fabric at my own expense and re-make the skirt. The bride went very quiet and left soon afterwards.
Later that evening I received a phone call from from her furious fiancé. “This dress has gone from bad to worse, hasn’t it?” he spluttered. This was news to me. As he demanded a refund, I wondered what I could possibly have done to inspire them to want to leave themselves without the all-important wedding gown with fourteen days to go, when the solution was perfectly simple.
I kept asking questions. Eventually it became clear: the bride had left each and every fitting terribly worried, but hadn’t had the courage to say anything to me. She believed that the fittings existed simply for her to come and inspect my work so far. Every time I put a pin in the dress, she had assumed that there was something terribly wrong, and instead of speaking up, she had just let herself get more and more upset until finally, my genuine and solvable mistake became the proof, for her, of my supposed incompetance.
It didn’t matter how much I explained that a fitting is for fitting the dress; things had gone too far and unfortunately, I didn’t have enough experience to be able to salvage the situation. It was too late - the mistakes had all been made.
Whose fault was it? It doesn’t matter – there was unintentional fault on both sides. The bride didn’t understand enough about what was happening. She hadn’t found out, I hadn’t told her enough at the start and I hadn’t reassured her that she must come to me with any concerns.
What would you have done differently?
What you can do
Firstly, establish trust right from the start. Be friendly and interested in them. Make your client feel that you’re a good friend. Make him/her feel as though s/he can come to you with his/her problems.
Secondly, make sure the client understands the process of having clothing custom made. As I’ve said, bespoke is a very new way to buy clothing for most people. I’ve drawn up a document that explains the process from first contact to final delivery so that there are no surprises. I suggest you do the same for the service you provide. Don’t make any assumptions about what they already know. You can put this information on your website, but I suggest you also give each client a copy personally, just to make sure. (Clients like to have something to take home from the first meeting!)
3 - Things aren’t written down
You know you’ve been there; we all have.
Client: “But you said you’d make me a matching hat at no extra cost!”
You: “Oh no I didn’t!”
You: “We agreed that you’d make your second payment after the mock-up was done.”
Client: “Oh no we didn’t, I’m going to pay you the balance when it’s finished.”
We’ve discussed contracts at length in my previous article, so do go and read the full details on paperwork there.
You NEED to have a written agreement about what you’re going to make, when the deadline is, how much it costs and so on. As one Trading Standards officer said to me, “The contract is the who, what, when, where, why.” All the details of the order go here with both yours and the client’s signature, so that everything’s firm. Your local business support service can help you to make it legal and binding (there's one somewhere in your country that'll give you free advice. It's in your country's economic interests to help you make your business a success, and you'll find that there are plenty of organisations falling over themselves to help you!)
It also doesn’t hurt to have the client also sign a simple receipt on delivery stating that the item is what they wanted, that it fits and is in perfect condition. This reduces the likelihood of inappropriate attempts to return the item.
What you can do
A simple contract is essential so that each of you understands what’s been agreed. No-one can have selective memory loss later on if there’s a contract, and most of all, the client is reassured that you’re a professional.
4 - They lose confidence in you
Keep your word. If you say one thing and then do another, they will notice. Now, I’m not expecting you to be unscrupulous enough to make this mistake deliberately, but there’s one situation in which it’s easy to fall foul of this one.
They give you an exciting order; you get excited too. You tell them all the fabulous things you could do for them, the details you could provide, the five fittings they’ll have.
In the actual making of the thing, you turn out only to have time for two fittings. The details have to be cut right back because the deadline’s close. They get upset because you promised more than you can deliver. They lose confidence.
What you can do
Under-promise and over-deliver. If you think you can do it in three weeks, tell them it’ll be six and then surprise them when it’s done early.
This goes double for the details and the making of the order. Learn to rein yourself in when you’re talking about an exciting new order. Tell them what they need to know about how you’re going to make it, and no more. Don’t discuss adding extras unless you’re itemising them on the contract and charging extra (which makes it official). Don’t offer free extras at the outset, however much you like the client – surprise them by offering them later, if you must offer them.
5 - Family and friends
I feel that we need a special category for family and friends. Some of the worst car-crash orders involve making things for family and friends – but why?
Compare the way you behave towards orders from family and friends with the way you behave towards orders from other clients (or the way you would expect to behave, if you haven’t got to that stage yet.)
You’re more informal with people you're close to; you don’t necessarily do things by the book, because it’s only your sister/best friend/aunt’s brother’s cousin, after all. Their order goes to the bottom of the pile, because it’s only X, and she’ll understand. You don’t charge them as much, ‘cause it’s only X.
There’s the mistake. A client is a client, and you need to treat them the same (and yes, charge them the same) regardless of who they are. Your sister might just be your sister, but if you’re professional and you do the job well she’ll be able to tell all her friends about exactly what to expect from you, encouraging more orders for you.
What you can do
Treating family and friends as clients doesn’t mean being unfriendly. Tell them that you pride yourself on customer service, and because they’re special to you, you want to take this chance to give them the full five-star VIP treatment, just as if they were Madonna or Marie Antoinette.
Then, in addition, ask them to “mystery shop” you. You’re going to treat them just like any other valued client, and because you know each other so well, you want them to give you their honest feedback afterwards.
Try anything you can think of to get them into a client-like relationship. If everything is done professionally, you have far less chance of anything going wrong.
Establishing an order process
As you can see, it may only take a few simple precautionary steps to minimise any problems with your clients. Get into a pattern that you go through with every client.
- Get to know them, establish trust and ensure they’re not under excessive stress;
- In the case of family and friends, establish a client-like relationship;
- Provide information about how the ordering process works, about fittings and so on - assume that they know nothing;
- Agree on a contract;
- Under-promise about the details of the order and the timescale, and then over-deliver;
- Have the client sign a receipt.
These simple measures should protect you from many potential problems, and take you forward much sooner into business success. Good luck!