Let's change that to customer service. Is it more important to be right or retain a customer?
Sure, there are limitations. There are customers who either possess no ability to obtain satisfaction or ones who are not worth the time, dollars or drama to keep. However, we're talking about a minuscule percentage of the customer pool.
The media keeps us well-apprised of customer dissatisfaction with the horror stories of how customers are handled. (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 those who prevent the 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 goals when it comes to handling a complaint:
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 on internet reviews, etc. A raving fan is a customer who lets others know how satisfied they are with 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 the phone or online. Make sure customers are asked specific questions about the service. Even if customers say their experience was fine, ask if they have any suggestions. This is a no-lose opportunity for the company. Satisfied customers will either say they don't have a suggestion or, if they do, they can help a company get better. And feeling listened to, they become even more of a raving fan. 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 or admitting they handled something wrong that they don't confirm that the customer's perception is just that. Their perception.
Don't feel the need to educate them. For example, I recently read a few emails involving a customer complaint. The customer wrote that the company did not have what they were looking for.
The manager responded, "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 the 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 actually help the organization improve.
Ask the customer, "What can I do to make this right?" You may have gulped 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.
Quint Studer is the founder of the Studer Community Institute and a successful business leader, speaker and author. He is also the entrepreneur in residence at the University of West Florida.
(Mr. Studer gave permission to reprint this article)