Fall 2013
Service with a Smile

Sometimes no matter what you do, there’s that customer who wants more – now! Compound this with the holidays and it’s easy to let a situation get out of hand. Here are some tips on handling difficult customers with a smile.

In the last two decades in particular, several key factors—increased retail competition, the rise of customization, and a near-total adoption of the philosophy that “the customer is always right”—have combined like a perfect storm to spawn more than a few high-maintenance customers, or “customonsters,” among us. These shoppers want what they want, when they want it, and won’t hesitate to upset your employees and disrupt your business.

Add to that the pressures of the holidays, and you can bet that as the peak selling season gets underway, you and your employees will probably have to deal with the occasional customonster. Here are seven ways you can prepare for them as the holiday pressure starts to rise, and the release valves you can pull, to bring tense situations under control.

Make the Rules

Determine what you will and won’t do to cater to your customers. If you will take back a T-shirt that was purchased 90 days ago, fine. If you will only do that for your “platinum” customers, that’s fine also. The point is to have rules in place, whatever they are. Otherwise, you are headed for a path of inconsistency and dissatisfaction as customers deal with various members of your staff who might be operating under different perceptions of your policies.

Teach the Rules

Once you have set policies in place, train your employees about the rules. Remember that effectively dealing with customonsters is not always an intuitive process for employees. For that reason alone, one training session is usually not enough, but other factors like turnover will affect your need for retraining. To make your training count, give your employees specific and detailed instructions on how to explain your policies to customers. Don’t assume that your salespeople will pick the right words—train them on the words you want them to use. Give them a script to follow.

Count to Ten

In the heat of the situation, you and your employees need to make every effort to stay calm and controlled. Customonsters tend to get the adrenaline flowing. Give your employees specific instructions that they are not to raise their voices or otherwise escalate the situation, no matter how upset or loud the customonster gets.

Address the Problem

It’s important to stay focused on solving the problem—not “fixing” the person. If the customer is unhappy that you don’t have a specific product available today, the conversation should stay focused on what products might be a good substitute, and perhaps any discount available that might help resolve the situation. Again, if employees know your policies in advance—when they can offer discounts and how much—they can deal with customonsters more authoritatively and effectively when the time comes.

Avoid the Bait

When dealing with an upset customonster, avoid answering rhetorical questions such as, “Do you have any idea how this is going to make me look, if I don’t get this [product] today?” If you take the bait, there’s no winning. Again, keep the focus on positive actions that can be taken to resolve the problem while recognizing the customer’s point of view: “I can see that the following solution’s not perfect, but I do have a similar product available today that you might want to try—and I’d like to offer you a discount of [X%] for your inconvenience.”

Designate!

Make sure employees have a “go-to-guy” or “go-to-gal” up the chain of command they can turn to, to diffuse and hopefully resolve the situation before it gets heated. Typically this is a storeowner or manager, but make sure everyone knows who the go-to person is when the owner/manager isn’t around. Identify these go-to people in advance, so you don’t leave your employees guessing and sending an upset customonster to a fellow employee who doesn’t have the skills to handle the situation.

Reward 

Recognize and reward employees who handle difficult and demanding customers well (and consider designating them as a go-to-guy). It’s impossible for employees to make the right decision 100 percent of the time, but you are more likely to get the best from your staff if they know you’re watching how they handle tough customers, and that you treat every mistake as a learning opportunity and reward effort.

Last but not least, remind yourself and your employees that when dealing with customonsters, a big dash of empathy can go a long way. The harried holiday season can bring out the worst in all of us sometimes—yet often all it takes is one positive interaction with a sincerely empathetic salesperson to diffuse a tense situation and get everyone focused on a solution.

Kate Zabriskie

Zabriskie is founder of Business Training Works, Inc., a Port Tobacco, MD-based company that specializes in down-to-earth skills training in the workplace.
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