Tricky customers, whats the secret?

Difficult customers can completely spoil the enjoyment of business. Benjamin Dyer of Powered Now looks at techniques for dealing with them.

In all businesses problem customers are a fact of life. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make things easier. Many issues can be resolved with straight forward techniques, so that’s what this article is about.

Two ears, one mouth

It’s a common sales saying that we have two ears and one mouth and should listen twice as much as we talk. When it comes to difficulties with customers that is especially true.

A few years ago there was an interesting study in the USA. This discovered that there is little correlation between incompetent doctors and those who got sued. Instead, their bedside manner was what counted. Bluntly, arrogant doctors got sued while kind and patient doctors didn’t, even when they were totally incompetent.

That’s the lesson for gas engineers, plumbers and other trade businesses. Be the lucky doctors. Listen carefully to any complaints. Never interrupt, never get defensive, only get back to them with a response when you have the facts. Be cuddly, it pays!

You cannot come out a winner

For most people in business, the saying that “the customer is always right” can be a bit irritating. The problem is that although the customer isn’t always right they can always win. That’s because they can waste huge amounts of your time, then slag you off online, create problems with trading standards and in extreme cases even take legal action. These outcomes are not good business, so being calm and taking evasive action makes sense.

Make complaints a priority

So make sure that it’s the boss that responds to complaints. My business partner is on the board of a FTSE-100 company with nearly a million customers. The chief executive personally answers any letter of complaint addressed to him. Few people expect this so it immediately disarms them. It also keeps him in touch while sending a strong message to the company that the people at the top truly care about customers.

The opposite is to ignore complaints and hope they will go away. That’s a very bad idea.

Basic rules

There’s one important first rule. Never disagree by email. If the way you hear about the problem is by email, meet the customer face to face or if that isn’t possible, call them. Just check out the vitriol online if you have any sort of belief that electronic communication can bring opposing views together. 

It’s hard but important not to take complaints personally. It’s likely that the customer is highly emotional and if you become the same it will just make things harder to resolve.

One way to take the sting out of a complaint is to make a small commitment that will start rebuilding trust. Arranging a quick appointment or promising to investigate and get back by a certain time, then delivering, is great for doing this.

Once you have delivered on your commitment you usually find that it’s easier to resolve the conflict.

How to deal with being wrong

When the customer has a reasonable complaint, however they present it, admit it and try to sort it out quickly and fairly.

One thing that drives me mad when I have a complaint is not that a mistake was made (everyone makes mistakes) but when the response is snail-like. Mistakes shouldn’t be something fixed when there’s some free time, they should be a priority.

The strange thing is this. After fixing a problem well, you will often gain stronger and more loyal advocates than if you had never made the mistake in the first place. Research has actually proved this.

How to deal with being right

If you think you are right, the first rule is to be 100% certain. Could one of your staff be putting a slant on things that doesn’t entirely accord with the facts? Investigate. Also be honest with yourself, maybe by asking someone who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth. Much worse than fixing a problem is to get into a losing fight.

After you have established the facts, try to calm things down by saying you are sorry that they feel they have been badly served. Then very gently talk through the situation.

If that doesn’t resolve things, try to find out what the customer wants. Simply asking that question can improve things. See if it’s possible to settle the dispute. If they are totally unreasonable, try to do enough to satisfy them for now so that they move onto their next victim. I have used this technique successfully in the past.

None of us should want a war, but if pushed into the corner we should make sure that we win. If there is the slightest suspicion it might go legal, start taking detailed, dated notes (and pictures if appropriate) of everything involved. Make sure that nothing has ever been admitted in writing or by email.  Take early legal advice despite the cost. Unfortunately I speak from experience and all of this can be a huge help.

Do they want to go the whole way?

When all else has failed, the time for confrontation may be at hand. Customers sometimes think that they always have the upper hand, and can bully you as much as they want. When you show that you’re not scared and (gently) confront them back, they may back off.

The sort of thing that you might say is “Do you want me to walk off the job today?” Or maybe “Do you really want this to go through months of legal wrangling, just making the lawyers rich?” Sometimes people feel angry but haven’t thought through where this will logically lead.

At the end of the day

Unfortunately we all make mistakes and even more unfortunately we will occasionally come across totally unreasonable customers. My hope is that this article has highlighted some techniques that can minimise the damage.

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