January 2004
Turning Angry Customers Into Loyal Happy Customers By Carrie Burns

Though it may be hard, helping difficult customers is part of being in retail. Find out how to make it go as smooth as possible and learn from the experience.

No matter what you do for your customers, there are always those who are cranky and demanding, believing that silly phrase, “the customer is always right.” They even try to throw that phrase in when complaining about service or anything else they set their minds to. But you know that phrase is not always right. It should be, “The customer should always feel right and valued.”

And this is what differentiates you from the big box stores. Because you are smaller, you can concentrate heavily and pride yourself on customer service. You have the opportunity to remember your customers, take the time to help them, fix “store policies,” etc.

One suggestion from Robert Spector, author of The Nordstrom Way and Lessons From The Nordstrom Way: How Companies are Emulating the #1 Customer Service Company , is to not take complaints personally. He recalled a story Eddie Bauer told him during an interview: Eddie had a business way back in the beginning of his career of stringing tennis rackets, and he took pride in his ability to string them taut and perfect. One day a customer came in for whom he strung a racket and complained that the racket was loose. Eddie saw that he must have left it out in the rain because that was the only way it would be in that condition. The customer denied leaving it in the rain and insisted the racket be restrung. By this time Eddie is fuming, and steam is coming out of his ears. He’s not talking to the customer; the customer’s not talking to him. Finally, Eddie just started to laugh. He knew it was silly for him to act that way and said, “sure I’ll string it and I’ll do a great job, and if in the event you might have left it out in the rain, make sure you don’t leave it out in the rain [in the future].”

“That experience taught him a real lesson: You need to take care of the customer and Á don’t take it personally,” Spector says. “For the most part, most customers are well meaning; most customers are us, and we’re not looking to rip off a company if we feel that we got bad service or the wrong price. We want somebody to hear our complaint. They may not necessarily have to take care of it, but we want them to hear and acknowledge and try to make it right.”

Did you ever realize the words silent and listen have the same letters in them? Makes sense: Be silent and listen to customer frustrations and arguments. When the customer is finished with the complaint, take a moment to think about it, gather your thoughts then summarize it back to them. This often makes them feel understood and like the process is not against them, causing them to calm down a bit. Then you can respond accordingly. “Figure out the best way of resolving the situation that will make the customer not only happy but satisfied and will also make sure you are not being taken advantage of. It’s finding that balance. A lot of it comes through experience,” says Spector.

What better way to give experience than to give your employees freedom and responsibility. “If you boil the Nordstrom system down to the essence, they give people on the front line the freedom to make decisions. Everything else flows from there,” Spector explains. “Let your employees know, this is our policy; this is how we see it, but if you in your good judgment feel you should do something else based on your reading of the situation, then you can do that and I’ll support you.”

When the Customer is Right

As we all know, people make mistakes. So, now what? Correct it; do it fast and with a smile. Though it may be difficult after being proved wrong, your job is to please the customer. Show concern for the customer’s feelings and displeasure. You can say something such as “I can see why you’re upset; let me fix this for you,” or “I’m sorry about this; let me help you.” It may even help to go above and beyond for the customer, since you or the company did inconvenience them. You want them to come back again and again, and they will if they feel special.

When the Customer is Wrong

I know, I know, you’d love to jump around and yell “I was right, I was right.” Even though the customer is wrong,remember the phrase, “The customer should always feel right.”Letting them know they’re wrong will just anger them more. You can even use the phrases above that were used when the customer is right.

Sometimes, you are just not able to fulfill their request. In this case, don’t tell them “no” or “it is company policy.” Offer alternatives. If a customer brings back a faulty product demanding their money back without a receipt, instead of telling them no, say something like, “I can give you a store credit, or I can give you your cash back if you bring in the receipt.” Try to stray from negative language, such as no or can’t. Believe it or not, the simple two-letter word no has a lot of power.

When Enough is Enough

One of the many things I took away from my trip to the ANLA Management Clinic last year is no one should have to take abuse from anyone — not coworker from coworker, employee from employer and even employee from customer. But, where is that thin line of abusive behavior when it comes to a customer? Most likely when comments become personal, loud and/or vulgar. This will definitely be the time for you (management) to step in and take action. Let the customer know that you would like to help but can’t until they calm down. Additionally, remove abusive customers from the sales floor. Invite them to your office, away from other customers, where you can be a little more firm and the customer cannot cause a scene.

Another problem is the repeat offender. You know the ones: They keep coming in, buy things, return things, they come back . . . It’s an endless cycle that eats up your time better spent with loyal, supporting customers. Spector believes it is acceptable to tell them, I don’t think this relationship is going to work; you don’t seem to be satisfied; it isn’t working out for us either, so I suggest you find another place for your lawn and garden needs. “It’s just like a relationship, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t,” says Spector.

But that’s business lost. “I know small businesses can’t have an unconditional money back guarantee because a) you can’t afford it and b) you’ll eventually go out of business, but you can do what works for you and only you can decide what that is,” Spector explains. “The old 80/20 principle holds . . . 100-percent customer satisfaction isn’t possible. That’s a formula for eventually going out of business, if you try satisfying every customer.”

Learning from angry customers

While dealing with an angry customer may not be on the list of favorite things about your job, it could, in the end, help your business. “A customer comes in for whatever reason, and they want you to make it better. Now you have that opportunity to make it better, and once you do, you’ve earned their trust even more than if everything goes perfect all of the time,” says Spector. “It’s just like being in a relationship or friendship. Anyone can be married or friends when everything is going along perfectly all of the time. That’s easy, but it’s when you have adversity, you work through it and you come out the other side, that strengthens the relationship.”

Young and inexperienced employees may not be able to work through the problem and help a disgruntled customer, causing an owner or manager to step in. But, this can also be a learning experience. “Have the employee who made the first contact with the customer observe what you did in handling the customer, because chances are [in the future] you may not be there and the person who is otherwise in charge may not be there to resolve a similar situation. Make it a learning experience,” Spector advises. This will, in turn, free up your time in the future, so you can focus on other aspects of the business.

In the end, properly dealing with angry customers, which everyone has at one time or another, could make your business better. “If a company is willing to make it right, then why wouldn’t you shop there, because you know you can count on them,” says Spector. This will increase word-of-mouth advertising, which is the best kind of advertising. “Word will get around that you do have that kind of service or attention to detail. The Nordstrom reputation [of having top-notch customer service] is all on word of mouth.” And look at where they are now.

Editor’s note: While this may be helpful to you as management, it could be beneficial to make copies of these tips to give to your staff.

Carrie Burns

Carrie Burns is associate editor at Lawn & Garden Retailer. She may be reached by phone at (847) 391-1019 or E-mail at [email protected]


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