Customers! Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. The majority are easy to work with. But what about the ones who yell like drill sergeants? The ones who lecture on how to do your job? The ones who laugh at your bad jokes, agree with your ideas — and then never do what they promised?

If you can afford to ignore annoying customers, great. But the law of averages dictates that you’re bound to encounter these folks. Keep in mind that annoying customers automatically stack the deck in their favor. To level the playing field, you’ve got to return the favor by responding differently from the way they’ve “programmed” you to do so. In the short-run at least, the following counter-strategies may turn annoying customers into somewhat reasonable people, and allow you both to get on with the business at hand.

The Holy Terror

Abrasive, hostile and just plain mean, Holy Terrors may be the first annoying customers to come to mind. Unrelenting in their criticism, they not only don’t like what you just said, they apparently don’t care much for you either.

As the name implies, Holy Terrors are self-righteous types who possess a strong desire to prove themselves, and themselves alone, right. They also have an unequivocally strong sense of what you “should” be doing — and gang way when you don’t follow suit.

It’s not easy to stand up to such an onslaught, but it’s exactly what you must do because Holy Terrors expect you to cut and run. Standing up for yourself is a bit easier to accomplish if you let the Holy Terror’s energy drain down. Nobody can yell forever. When they lose their momentum, get their attention. Saying their name clearly and loudly might help. If you’re both standing, try to get the Holy Terror to sit down with you, or vice versa. Next, describe your point of view in terms of language that is forceful without directly attacking what the Holy Terror just said. For example, keep the following diplomatic phrases in mind: “In my opinion ...” “I’m going to have to disagree.” “I can see you don’t think much about it, but my experience has been different.”

The key is walking the fine line between defending yourself and becoming a threat. If you can accomplish this, Holy Terrors can become quite friendly. A head-on fight, on the other hand, must be avoided by all means. You’re surely an amateur at waging war with someone who embodies a conviction that “I’m right; you’re wrong.” And in the rare instance that you do out-shout a Holy Terror, do you think that “will teach him a lesson?” Just wait until your next encounter. Don’t count on any repeat business — that is, if you’re still alive.

The Know-It-All Who Doesn't

Phony know-it-alls are the types who can scan the headlines over morning coffee, and then pontificate with complete sincerity on any event of the day anywhere on the face of the earth by the time they get to the office. It doesn’t matter if they got the events of Bosnia mixed up with the events of Israel. They may be so gifted with words that you won’t even know the difference. Go ahead, just ask ‘em. They’re positive!

While these folks may define “annoying,” phony Know-It-Alls are also the easiest to deal with. They may be full of hot air, but you needn’t view them as incessant windbags. Just be patient and allow them to tell you everything you need to know about 1.6 water closets (they’ll be in the know enough to not say, “toilets”).

Then, be what they can’t — a genuine expert. However, this requires a bit more finesse than just shouting, “Baloney!” The problem with that approach is that nobody likes a real know-it-all any better than a fake one. Strive to be a “know-a-lot,” instead.

Humbly present your facts as an alternative set of facts rather than the only set. In the meantime you’ve got to provide a means for the phony Know-It-All to save face. A catch-all phrase in this regard might be, “I think the situation might be different today.” As further means of face-saving, it’s best to face the phony Know-It-All one-on-one.

The Not So Strong, But Silent Anyway Type

You’ve just asked one of your customers a question. It’s only human nature to expect an answer. But what you get is a “yep,” or “nope,” if that much. Not So Strong, But Silent Anyway Types are much more than simply quiet, shy people. There’s no more elegant way of controlling others than by withholding conversation.

Not content with just being annoying, Silent Types want to be maddening, too. The only way you’ll ever be able to cope is to get these types to talk. That may be obvious, but your choice of questions may be less so. The best questions are open-ended ones, the kind that require more than a “yep” or a “nope” to answer. For example, instead of asking, “Do you have any questions?” try asking, “What do you think?”

An added nonverbal skill to throw in is a facial expression that illustrates you expect an answer. Basically, the idea is to raise your eyebrows and open your eyes a bit wider than you normally do. It may feel odd, but while you’re standing there with this face, you’ve got to stop talking yourself. Here’s a chance to fight silence with silence.

Lo and behold, your silent customer might start a real conversation. By all means, pay attention to what’s being said, and emphasize that you’re doing so. Nod your head, repeat back what you think you’ve just heard, and ask if, in fact, that’s what the customer meant.

The Smiling Back Stabber

Smiling Back Stabbers agree with everything you say and do so in just a friendly manner that you might want to buy them drinks after work. But turn your back after a job you thought well-done ... or just try to get them to actually do what you could have sworn they agreed to the day before.

Smiling Back Stabbers truly want to please all of the people all of the time. They specialize in telling you only what they think you want to hear. And so Smiling Back Stabbers makes promises they won’t keep or agree to actions on which they will not follow through. What they view as kindness, you ultimately recognize as subterfuge.

Sometimes all that’s needed to deal with a Smiling Back Stabber is a straightforward request for honest information. Just point out that you want to hear the truth which would help you understand the situation better. Smiling Back Stabbers are much more likely to spill the beans if they understand their criticism won’t be viewed negatively. And it’s much easier to get them to talk about what’s “not as good as it could be” about your service, rather than what’s “bad.”

Smiling Back Stabbers are easier to deal with if you keep in mind that any dilemma that they feel anxious about is probably no big deal to you. Once the facts are on the table, you can both find a solution to the crisis that the Smiling Back Stabber would never face and you would never know about.

The Staller

Stallers possess a special sort of indecisiveness. Unlike wishy-washy types who eventually come to a decision, Stallers put off making any decision until the need to make the decision goes away.

Like Smiling Back Stabbers, Stallers are usually quite friendly and will leave you with the impression that they surely agreed with you. But their motivations are different. Whereas Smiling Back Stabbers can’t say no because they desperately want your approval, Stallers procrastinate because they simply can’t bear the thought of hurting anyone. Any decision for one means bad news for someone else.

For all their obfuscation, Stallers do have a strong urge to be honest and helpful. Your first challenge is to find out exactly what’s on their minds. Just be prepared to crack the code of a Staller’s evasive choice of indirect language. If they say, “That sounds generally right,” ask them what they mean by “generally.” If they say, “I can see why you’d want to do that,” ask them if there’s a reason why they wouldn’t do it.” Clarify, clarify, clarify.

After describing the problem comes decision time. Whenever possible, link your solution to quality, and the benefits it can bring to not only the Staller but the community at large. Stallers hold altruistic views and apply the same heroic standards to you. Water-saving fixtures and energy-efficient boilers would be good bets to offer Stallers.

The Cry Baby

Babies cry for good reasons: Without a literal cry for help, any number of life-threatening maladies would befall them. Alas, some Cry Babies haven’t slept in a crib for decades. The disguised message behind their adult whining is that “someone” — that usually means YOU — should be doing something.

Your challenge is showing them plenty of constructive problem-solving remains without pointing out the hypocrisy of their supposed helplessness.

Now here’s an example of where the cure may be worse than the disease. The first step in dealing with Cry Babies is to hear them out. That shouldn’t be too hard to do. Acknowledge what was just said by paraphrasing what you think their main points are. It will also help if you “paraphrase” the emotional content of what the Cry Baby must be feeling like after describing such a horrible chain of events. Acknowledging doesn’t mean, however, apologizing. If you apologize, you run the risk of confirming the Cry Baby’s natural suspicion — that you’re the one responsible.

Next ask very simple descriptive questions designed to make the Cry Baby describe the problem more matter-of-factly. For example ask, “When does the problem occur?” or “At what times is it worse or better?” Don’t expect this information gathering to work right off the bat. You may have to endure more rounds of complaints. Keep the question, “Can we get back to the question I was asking before?” in reserve.

It’s also valuable to fill in the gap between their concerns over a problem and their perceived helplessness to do anything about it. Do so by getting the Cry Baby personally involved in the fact-gathering process. Perhaps, the Cry Baby can monitor something while you fidget with a control in the basement.

Like a baby crying in the crib, Cry Babies are usually on to something. Supporting anything constructive they can do will be worth the effort.

The Wet Blanket

A kissing cousin to the Cry Baby is the Wet Blanket — these pessimists don’t believe that there’s much they can personally do about a problem. So what on earth makes you think you’ve got the answer?

Logical skepticism isn’t at work here. So have an alarm go off in your head anytime you hear such emphatically stated sentiments as: “There’s no sense trying that ... There’s nothing that can be done ... We’ve never done it that way before ... That will never work.” To avoid drowning in this negativism, express your own optimistic, but realistic views on how to solve the problem at hand. The Wet Blankets’ biggest blind spot is the inability to see other ways around, under, over or through road blocks. Perhaps you’ve got an example from the past on exactly how you fixed this problem before. If not, saying “I still think that we haven’t tried everything” is better than nothing.

The path to succeeding with a Wet Blanket is similar to that of a Cry Baby. The emphasis should be on moving these types from endless carping to solving problems. Ask the Wet Blanket to describe the problem at hand by specifically asking what, where, why and how questions. By all means, avoid an argument. Keep in mind, that the Wet Blanket firmly believes that nothing you can do will work. Any debate will just put the Wet Blanket on the defensive. Concentrate instead on showing that there are some alternatives at least worth trying.

Take your time asking questions before offering a solution. Given the tedious nature of Wet Blankets, this really shouldn’t be a problem. When you finally do get around to proposing a course of action, it’s a good idea if you yourself bring up what could go wrong. This will put the Wet Blanket off-guard, particularly if you emphasize that some additional troubleshooting is commonly needed to make your plan work.