My recent column Top 5 Ways Big Customers Screw With Small Vendors points out that some buyers see sellers—that means you—as scapegoats. Buyers use the fact they needn't work with you on a daily basis as an excuse to vent their frustration by exploding at you.

Sometimes such customer-explosions are be triggered by something that you, or your company, did that wasn't to the buyer's liking. And sometimes the abuse seems to simply comes out of nowhere. Regardless, what's important isn't where it comes from, but rather how you deal with it.

Unfortunately, many sellers deal with this kind of behavior in exactly the wrong way. They sit there and take it, then meekly apologize.

That's the absolute worst thing you can do. 

The moment you let a customer bully you, you've completely lost that customer's respect.  Worse, you've set yourself up for a relationship of further bullying and abuse.

Here's a simple six-step recipe for defusing this situation.

  • STEP #1: Keep your pipeline full.  Bullies smell fear. The best way to be fearless, when you're selling, is never to rely entirely on a single customer to make your revenue numbers. If you know you've got plenty of buyers in waiting, you always have the option of simply walking out and moving on. 
  • STEP #2. Raise your own intensity level. When the customer begins to explode, you've got to get onto the same level in order to create rapport. You don't have to yell, but your voice must be firm and authoritative. If the conversation is face-to-face, you have to keep it eye-to-eye. Wear a serious expression that communicates clearly that you don't appreciate being yelled at and don't intend to be intimidated.
  • STEP #3. Call the customer's bluff.  You're a professional, not a doormat. State clearly that you're willing to help resolve the problem, but you're not going to be yelled at. Don't mince words. Demand respect. Make it absolutely clear that your help is dependent upon the customer's ability to behave in a civil manner. 
  • STEP #4. If the customer does not comply, end the conversation. Do this politely but firmly. State that you'll be glad to help once the customer is willing to treat you with the respect that you deserve. Make sure the customer knows how to contact you. Then leave. Never take abuse. No job is worth it.
  • STEP #5: Apologize appropriately for the problem. Once you've demanded and received civil behavior—then and only then—apologize for the inconvenience that the problem might have caused the customer. Make a commitment to resolve the problem.
  • STEP #6: Work on the problem. Now that you've established that you're not the customer's punching bag, go ahead and work the customer's issue.  Needless to say, you'll need to do a superlative job resolving the problem. But you were going to do that anyway, right? 

Just this weekend, I came across a perfect example of how to counter bullying in Steve Jobs's biography. Jobs was probably one of the worst bullies in the corporate world, often reducing people to tears. However, when Jobs yelled at his chief designer, the chief designer reacted very differently than did most people. He yelled right back. 

Guess who kept Jobs's respect? 

Along the same lines, I once worked for a bully who'd pick out a staff member at every meeting to yell at and berate.  The one staff member who wasn't treated this way was a woman who, when he tried it on her the first time, threw a pencil at him and told him to "stop acting like an a------."

In short, when you placate, you're just proving to the bully that you're weak and stupid.  The bully figures that if you had something valuable to offer, you wouldn't take the guff. 

By contrast, when you lay down the law and demand the respect due a professional, you're creating the credibility that the bully needs to see before he begins to trust that you can do the job.