Winter 2000
How to Talk to a Tough Customer

Uh-oh. Here it comes: the flushed face, the rapid breathing, the clenched teeth—the angry customer. Remember the Perato Principle? It’s the one that says 80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your customers. That’s true for many businesses. What’s true for all businesses is a variation on the Perato theme, a Principle of Tough Customers: 80 percent of these walking, talking, complaining headaches come from 20 percent of your customers.

There’s bad news and good news in this axiom. The bad news: you must deal with that angry 20 percent effectively if you don’t want to jeopardize your bottom line. If you aren’t skillful with these customers, they’ll put their well-exercised vocal cords to work, bad-mouthing your business throughout the community. You’ll lose their patronage (which might seem like a blessing while your blood is boiling), but in the long run your business will suffer. Unhappy customers take a big bite out of your business as they tell tales—and they will—of how badly you treated them.

The good news: since their number is small, you can learn tried-and-true ways to keep their business, their friends’ business, and your sanity at the same time.

Dan Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, offers five steps for tackling the tough customer. Goleman’s overall message encourages everyone, not just retailers, to rely on our emotional intelligence: “knowing and managing one’s emotions, empathizing with others, and handling relationships effectively.” Clearly Goleman’s formula is good for dealing with family, friends, employees—and customers. Especially the tough ones.

Goleman’s five-step plan:

1. Deal with you first.
“Handle your own emotional reaction. You don’t want to get hijacked,” Goleman says. If you let the other person’s attitude upset you, you can’t deal with them calmly and clearly, which is key. His advice: “Stop. Take a few deep breaths. Count to 100—whatever works for you.”

2. Tune in.
“When you have your own anger or reactions in check,” he says, “tune in to that tough customer. Really listen to what he or she is saying.” Go beyond thinking this person is “abusive, complaining, indecisive and overly finicky, ” he says, and try to figure out what made the tough customer feel and act abusive and complaining. “People don’t start out that way,” Goleman says. “They become that way. Try to understand their perspective.”

3. Take your time.
Goleman suggests this strategy: “Even if you have the answer or solution immediately… wait. Don’t jump in too quickly. Encourage them to talk.” Ask them questions in a sympathetic tone, such as “Tell me what happened to you.” Then, he says, “Try to picture their situation. Try to see it from their perspective… to figure out why it seems the fault is yours.” To get to the heart of the issue, Goleman says, ask “clarifying” questions, and “keep asking until you fully understand the situation.” He adds, “Some people call this ‘letting them vent.’ I call it ‘really listening.'”

4. Empathize.
“Say something like, ‘Gosh, no wonder you’re upset’… even put yourself in their shoes and say, ‘I’d be upset too if that happened to me.'” Doing this tells the other person that you hear what he’s telling you.

5. “May I help you?”
This classic salesperson’s question comes full circle as the last step in Goleman’s strategy. “Maybe you can solve the problem and maybe you can’t,” he says. “If you can’t, be apologetic and sympathetic about that. Often all people want is to be heard, understood and sympathized with. That’s why they’re acting so tough.”

But what if you’re not there when that customer charges through your door? Are your employees prepared? Jeff Slutsky, president of Street Fighter Marketing in Columbus, OH, believes strongly in role-play. No matter how much you may talk about the potential for a loud, insufferable, even abusive customer, when the first real one lets loose on your staff, unprepared employees either run for cover or make ineffective—and often disastrous— attempts to fight back.

Just as soldiers go on maneuvers and play war games, Slutsky suggests managers practice retail-relations war games with their employees. He advises business owners to conduct one-hour “Tough Customer Boot Camp” training sessions for all employees.

“Have your employees practice staying cool and calm while another employee plays the role of the tough customer. Tell [the role-player] it’s ‘no holds barred.’ Tell him to pretend to be the toughest customer he himself ever came up against,” Slutsky says. Let him know he can yell all he wants.

“Beyond the game being excellent preparation for staying calm in the red face of a mad customer, the game is fun, and creates solidarity among the employees,” Slutsky says. “If you repeat the training enough, your employees are less likely to get caught off their emotional guard when the real tough customer attacks them.”

Prevent trouble

Shirley Bednarz, a principal of Bednarz Business Strategies, a sales training and consulting firm in Stevens Point, WI, offers an additional technique. She believes strongly in the old “an ounce of prevention” approach. “Make it easier for your customers to complain before they get exasperated and wind up yelling,” Bednarz advises, and offers three ways to do this:

1. If you mail invoices, or when you give customers their bill, include a card or questionnaire for them to identify areas they feel need attention. You may be surprised when you read their comments. Often you can find easy ways to modify your policies to better meet your
customers’ needs.

2. Call your customers personally to follow up on big orders or purchases. When you invite customers to discuss their little concerns now, you can head off big complaints later.

3. Don’t let a tough customer leave before you ask, “Have we solved your problem or concern to your satisfaction?” Giving closure to a customer complaint is as important as solving the problem. It creates customer loyalty and encourages positive word of mouth.

Treat your regulars like VIPs

Frank Grazian, a professor emeritus of communications at Rowan College in New Jersey, agrees that being proactive—taking action before a customer becomes angry—is the best way to reduce the number of tough customers you have to deal with. He suggests learning your regular customers’ preferences, like the coffee-shop waitress who knows to bring Sam ketchup with his eggs. “Familiarize your staff with what to expect from these regulars,” Grazian says. “That way, your regular customer feels like a VIP, and is a lot less apt to become one of the tough 20 percent.”

Grazian is also an advocate of training. “If your local college or any local company has seminars on dealing with difficult people, send your employees,” he says. Companies like Career Track, Fred Pryor and National Seminars have sessions that come to most larger US cities.

Training your employees is a wise investment. Finding and keeping qualified personnel is increasingly difficult, so you want to be able to keep the good ones you have. And good employees appreciate the opportunity to gain new skills that they can use in their professional and personal lives.

Help your employees get it right

One of the greatest challenges an owner or manager faces is keeping silent while an employee botches an encounter with a tough customer. The temptation is to jump in, brush the employee aside and take over. But unless you do this with great skill, the employee will feel belittled.

Sam Deep, co-author of What to Say to Get What You Want, warns: “Once you criticize that employee and hurt his or her self-esteem… you really have a problem on your hands.” Deep, who designs employee-development plans for major companies, says how you handle your employees and their treatment of tough customers is crucial. “If one of your employees has dealt unskillfully with a tough customer,” he cautions, “do not criticize the employee. Simply resolve to give that particular worker some coaching.” Then if you feel you must refer to the incident during the coaching session, he says, “make sure you are not critical of the employee, merely the action he or she chose.”

Be sincere

When a problem really isn’t the company’s fault, inexperienced or untrained managers might ask, “Why should I apologize?” Kelly J. Watkins, president of Expressive Concepts, a communications training firm in Louisville, KY, has the answer. “Apologizing doesn’t have to mean that you have done anything wrong,” he says. “It can merely be a way of saying, ‘We are sorry that you, our customer, had a problem.’ When you understand the difference,” she says, “it’s easier to be genuine.”

More than that, “You may even want to thank the customer for bringing the problem to your attention,” Watkins adds. “Most unhappy customers simply suffer silently. But they no longer give you their business, whereas this talkative tough customer has just given you the opportunity to resolve the trouble. That’s worth a thank-you.”

Another common problem for managers is whether to agree with the facts a tough customer presents, or to set the record straight. In this case, Watson counsels empathy: “Start by acknowledging their perspective,” says Watkins. “That means putting yourself in your customer’s shoes and perhaps saying, ‘I see how you might feel that way,’ or the ever welcome, ‘I understand.’ Neither statement implies agreement or that you have done anything wrong.”

As in a family, arguments with tough customers are sometimes not so much about what happened but about winning. Dr. Joyce Brothers, the renowned psychologist, paints a vivid picture of a typical argument. “If you’re in a tug- of-war with a customer,” she says, “and you simply let go of your end of the rope, you don’t have a tug-of-war anymore. All you have is someone with a lot of rope curled around them.”

Then when it’s time to solve the problem, Watkins advises, find creative resolutions. One of the most effective is to let the customer choose one of two alternatives. “That way,” she adds, “the customer feels he or she has gotten their way.” And as she says, sometimes that’s all the tough customer wants.

Leil Lowndes

Lowndes is an internationally acclaimed writer, motivational speaker, and corporate trainer. She has spoken, consulted, and conducted training programs in every major city in the US and many abroad. Leil has written 7 books and 6 audio programs on all types of interpersonal communicating. Her books have been translated into 18 languages, and she has received testimonials from dozens of top communicators.
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