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  • There's the Door… When to Say 'Get Lost' to a Difficult Customer

    If there's one saying most business owners claim to accept, it's that the customer is always right.

    Like all truisms, this one has its grain of validity. Without customers, your business wouldn't be a business at all. It's only right to put their wants and needs ahead of yours Þ most of the time.

    That "most of the time," however, is where many business owners get confused. Does "always right" apply when a customer abuses your refund policy? What about the regular who becomes angry and abusive when something goes awry? Is it ever wise to turn tough customers — and their business — away?

    Don't Get Them Started

    It's smart to at least try to turn difficult customers into good ones. Can it be done? Sometimes.

    The easiest way to do it? Eliminate the "triggers" that set them off in the first place.

    If you don't do so already, keep track of all customer complaints. Create a form to facilitate the record keeping. Nothing fancy, just a sheet of paper with spaces for customer name, date, the nature of the problem, and the steps you took to resolve it will work.

    Direct all of your employees to fill out and file a form each time a problem arises.

    Then, every so often, look over the completed forms. Chances are, you'll see some patterns emerge — for example, a large number of incidents involving a specific customer. Mrs. Burns might have a beef with every order, regardless of the circumstances. You may not be able to do much about her reactions.

    More often, however, you will notice problems that you can do something about. Let's say, for example, that you've noticed several complaints about "stale" arrangements.

    Checking over your records, you might find that those complaints crop up when you buy flowers from a particular supplier. Or you might notice that the same driver delivered all of the arrangements in question.

    Good records will help you identify and address any circumstances that are triggering an unusual number of complaints.

    A Matter of Policy

    Outdated policies and procedures can also be a big problem. As your business grows and matures, something that made sense a few years ago can cause major frustration today.

    Analyze all of your shop's policies with an eye toward determining their customer-friendliness. Do you automatically say "no" to requests for same-day deliveries called in after noon? Are you the only person on the staff empowered to deal with customers' complaints, even on days when you're out of the office? Do you usually reject unusual requests?

    If a policy no longer makes sense, take steps to change it. You'll eliminate a barrier to customer happiness. And most likely increase your profits by bringing in more sales.

    Don't Say It

    You might even want to consider eliminating the words "company policy" from your vocabulary when dealing with customer complaints.

    Citing company policy as the reason for an action that angered or upset a customer is likely to only exacerbate the situation. Customers don't care about your policies. They care about their satisfaction.

    Know how to verbalize the reason for every policy. If you can't, it's probably not a policy you needed in the first place.

    In Control

    Sometimes a problem really does lie with a particular (and particularly disagreeable) customer. You can't pacify the individual with "systemic" changes to policies and procedures. Emotions are running deep.

    Although you can't control difficult customers, you can control the way you look at and react to them.

    Your first task? Rethink that "difficult customer" label. Instead, train yourself and your staff to view difficult customers as customers with difficulties.

    The difference? You can't do anything to change difficult people. But difficulties? Those, you really can do something about.

    This slight semantic shift will help you direct your focus away from a customer's personally unpleasant characteristics and toward a solution to that customer's problem.

    Making this shift will require a little effort on your part. Take a few seconds to collect your thoughts and paste on a pleasant smile. Put the brakes on your own gut reaction before diving into a dialog.

    Try to see the situation from the customer's perspective, even if you feel strongly that the perspective is flawed. A situation that seems cut and dried to you may be an emotionally charged crisis for your customer. Be sympathetic to such feelings, even if they seem out of proportion to whatever has taken place.

    Time to Say Goodbye

    Very rarely, you may encounter a customer whose attitude and behavior go way beyond what's reasonable for a given situation — someone whose problems or desires far exceed the kind of help you're able or willing to provide.

    Given the chance, these customers will be perfectly willing to take advantage of your generosity. Or even worse, you may run across a customer who is verbally abusive to you or your employees. Is it ever appropriate to cut these people loose?

    Yes. Saying good-bye can save sanity, your reputation, and your good working relationship with your employees.

    Consider walking away from a customer if he or she:

    • Is abusive to your staff. As difficult as it can be to drum up business, finding good employees is harder still. If a customer demeans, belittles, or harasses your employees, make it clear that you have no interest in his or her future business.
    • Becomes a drain on profits. You want to do everything within reason to please your customers. But if pleasing a particular customer means continually throwing in extras that eliminate your profits, think long and hard about whether that relationship is really worth it.
    • Stretches your people and resources to the max. So Mr. Thompson needs his flowers delivered within the hour. It's okay to ask your employees to come through with a special favor every once in a while. But asking them to do the impossible on a daily basis will unduly strain your team and your working relationship with them. Also, repeatedly delivering favors will only reinforce unfavorable customer behavior. If you can't convince Mr. Thompson to place his orders earlier, you may be better off just saying no to his request.

    Your Choice

    Although it is always difficult to bid a customer farewell, it is within your power to do so. And sometimes, that's the best course to follow.

    First try to fix a difficult situation, but don't let yourself be abused in the process. It's your business — so make it work for you.

     

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