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Opinion: How to handle customers who waste your time

Smart Ways Series

Posted online

One topic getting too little attention is how to handle customers or prospective customers who waste the company’s time.

On one hand, time spent with customers is frequently productive. Customer communications help foster positive relationships, build trust, increase loyalty and gain future revenues. Unfortunately, if it’s permitted, some customers also will waste significant amounts of your time.

Some of the most common customer time wasters are excessive small talk, discussions not fitting your offering, debating company purchase or shipping requirements, routine price shopping and uncertain timelines.

Let’s be honest, customer time wasters occur because we allow it. What’s more, many, if not most, employees aren’t trained how to handle these situations.

How much time or dollars does the average business lose from time wasters? That’s hard to say. Clearly, the cost to a business can accumulate quickly.

For example, if an employee wastes 20 minutes a day on small talk, it will accumulate to over 80 hours a year. Think about that, two full weeks of productivity potentially gone. Now, multiply 80 hours by the number of employees likely to experience time-wasting customers, and then multiply by an average hourly rate to see what it’s costing your company.

I’ve asked audiences to do the math during speeches or during client coaching sessions. Many are shocked, while others aren’t surprised. And yet, virtually no one is doing anything about the problem. Why?

One possible reason is because getting time with a customer or prospect is what every prosperous company desires; it’s their lifeblood. Since no one wants to risk losing a good customer when trying to handle a tricky situation, it’s often easier to avoid the problem by doing nothing.

Here are five ways to manage customer time wasters while still giving friendly service.

1. Communicate your limitations of time. Whenever customers engage in endless small talk, offer a legitimate reason for needing to end the conversation quickly, such as, “I have a customer appointment in five minutes.” This helps smooth over the customer’s feelings and lets you juggle multiple customer needs.

2. Ask if you can set a follow-up conversation. When it’s not possible to help them, as in the previous “appointment” example, ask for a convenient time to have a follow-up conversation. This leaves customers feeling like you really want to help and builds goodwill.

3. Find out the urgency. Try asking something like, “Are you placing an order for this right now? Or is it something you’re just thinking about and want some ballpark prices?”  This allows you to establish the priority, determine whether you should handle it yourself or if referring it to someone else would be better. A side benefit is it may accelerate the customer’s desire for your product.  

4. Set the expectations. Explaining how you operate, how to best reach you and your normal working hours may seem unnecessary, but they set helpful parameters for customer expectations.

5. Use customer-benefit language. To avoid giving a customer the feeling you are putting them off or don’t value their business, use verbiage like, “To provide you with excellent service, let me …,” or, “Your business is very important to us, can I have Tom call you tomorrow morning?” This helps convey a strong interest in your customer’s business, while providing a way to control your time.

Time is money and wasting time means wasting money. It’s essential to limit time wasters caused by customers, but also do it with friendly service.

Consultant and professional speaker Mark Holmes is president of Springfield-based Consultant Board Inc. and He’s also the author of “The Five Rules of Megavalue Selling.” He can be reached at


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