Training & Development

Cracking customer service code

Quint Studer.

What is more important: To be right or be happy?

Let’s change that to customer service. Is it more important to be right or to retain a customer?

Sure, there are limitations. There are customers who cannot be satisfied. There are customers who are not worth the time, dollars or drama to keep. They are a miniscule percentage of the customer pool.

The media keeps us well apprised of customer dissatisfaction with the horror stories of how customers are handles (See: The airline industry in recent weeks). What you don’t hear as much about – only in special cases – are the stories of employees turning unhappy customers into happy ones, preventing all that negative press. I have often said the preventers of issues don’t get the credit they deserve.

The recent headlines have shed public light on the need for employee training specific to deescalating customer issues. This skill is always helpful to staff. The more they feel able to handle situations, the less anxiety exists. Every company should strive for a culture that allows people to use their critical thinking skills. Situations and people vary, so while the basics may be the same, having employees unafraid to make decisions in handling customer complaints is critical to making a business successful.

I see three things that can happen when it comes to handling a complaint.

— Retain the customer and create great word of mouth. A complaint well-handled can create an even more loyal customer.

— Retain the customer, and even if they don’t rave about your company, they remain customers.

— You don’t retain the customer, but you handle it well enough to where that person is not out creating bad word of mouth to the organization.

There will be unhappy people. It is very hard to find any company, even those companies with national and local reputations for great service, that is perfect.

However, if there are many raving fans, they will weigh in with positive comments in online reviews, etc. A raving fan is a customer who lets others know how satisfied they are. Those comments like “you need to go there, shop there, eat there,” etc.

Let’s run through some suggestions on handling unsatisfied customers:

— Be assertive when customers are face-to-face, on phone or online. Make sure the customer is asked specific questions about the service. Even if customer says their experience was fine, ask if they have any suggestions. This is a no lose for the company. Satisfied customers will either say they don’t have a suggestion, or if they do, the satisfied customer helps a company get better. Too often what a customer hears is the generic “How is everything?” This misses the opportunity to dig deeper on what and who can be recognized and what can be made better.

— In responding, don’t be defensive. While you may not agree with the customer, it is fine to say I am sorry you feel that way. Too often companies are just so worried about saying/admitting they handled something wrong that they don’t confirm that the customer’s perception is just that: A perception.

— Don’t feel the need to educate them. For example, I recently read a few e-mails involving a customer complaint. The customer wrote that the company did not have what they were looking for.

The managers responded this way: “To inform you, we do have what you were looking for.” To me this can make a bad situation even worse. The manager could have said this instead: “I am sorry you could not find what you were looking for. While it is available, your note helps us do a better job in making these items more visible.” After that, offer to help customer get the item. If it is a food item, invite the customer back. This is where the responder was more concerned about being right than taking the customer’s view into perspective. If a customer wanted an item and could not find it, hearing it actually was there and making the presumption it is their fault for not finding will not be helpful. Many complaints can help the organization improve.

— Ask the customer, what can I do to make this right? You may gulp when you read that. “What if they ask for something you can’t do?” My experience is that most of the time the customer is very reasonable. The most common answer to my question is “I just don’t want this to happen to anyone else.” If their request cannot be met, it still leads to a conversation that will usually come to a good conclusion. If the person is unreasonable, then it is still better to show that you were reasonable before reaching the conclusion that it may be better to not retain that customer.

Handling a complaint is never easy. Many times, the customer is upset. Having the skills to confirm their feelings, make those critical decisions and not be defensive can lead to more loyalty and a strong reputation. Those are things every business wants.