The average business owner has a love/hate relationship with their customers. On the one hand, they recognize how vital the customer is to the sustaining, growing, and building of the business (or at least if the business owner is sane, that is self evident!). On the other hand, customers often want to receive the product or service in non-standard way that when not delivered as requested or demanded, can lead to a customer complaining. How to handle a complaining customer is a skill that few business owners have been taught; and therefore, causes many of them to feel less confident in their approach.
Complaint As Request
Attend any random collection of sales training sessions that take place in hotel ballrooms every day of the year in nearly every city; and you will likely hear that any customer complaint is actually a good thing. The thinking goes that the customer:
• Feels invested enough to share what they prefer, want, desire, will refuse, etc. with the company in the hope that the company will provide that customer with the additional reason to continue patronage (or remove a reason to shop elsewhere).
• Is making a request that they sincerely want the company to meet or fulfill.
• Is motivated enough to express or share that with the company and is therefore asking to be given a reason to be a loyal repeat customer.
Further, the pundits will share that it is the customer that becomes annoyed or feels dissatisfied and chooses NOT to share that with the company that is the more dangerous customer to the business. That person goes away and may not only refuse to frequent a business, but may also poison it for people in her or his network of contacts by sharing their perceived negative experience with those others. At least the customer voicing a complaint provides the business with a chance to make it right – and the business can hopefully convert the complaining customer into a staunch zealot for the business who will now share their enthusiasm for the business and how the business responded positively to the request with all of her or his network and thereby increase future business (or at least the potential for future business) with those in the network.
Donuts to Dollars
This issue around handling customer complaints recently received national attention when a customer of the Tim Horton’s chain of donut shops was barred from stores for having complained too many times about how the coffee tasted. While the details released may not be complete, and the PR efforts of both the chain and the customer may have skewed the accuracy of the reported facts to cast each in the best light, it did serve to bring the issue to the fore.
At the core of the issue is how to best handle a complaint received by a business. The worst thing for a business to do is to dismiss it out of hand. Using the Tim Horton’s example; it would be advisable for the chain to examine the following:
• What is the complaint (product, service, environment, etc.)?
• Is it only heard by one lone person, or has it been expressed before by others?
• Can it be resolved?
o At all
• Will additional training influence how the product is made/served/etc.?
The news reports maintain that the customer complained about the taste of the coffee. It is possible that the coffee has been allowed to sit in the pot for too long of a time that it has developed a bad taste due to evaporation (too strong), poor cleaning of the pots (so there may be a change to the taste based on residual product still being left in the pot, or perhaps it is not made according to the recommended standards or ratio of water to product. Lastly, the product just may have a taste that is not to the liking of the particular customer no matter what.
The news reports further stated that the same customer would return frequently to voice the same complaint over and over again and ask for some kind of recompense for having been served a product that was below expectations.
Customer Is Always Right?
Norwalk’s Stew Leonard’s store has a huge rock at the entryway that proudly exclaims two rules:
1. that the customer is always right
2. And if the customer is not right, refer to rule # 1.
While renowned for customer service and having a reputation for exemplarily training their employees; should the sign be taken as gospel? Surely, Stew Leonard’s can show proof that their taking it to heart has been successful.
However, a customer that repeatedly complains, even after attempts have been made to satisfy him or her just may not be a customer a business wishes to keep. While attempts to please should be made, and providing attention to the complainer in an effort to satisfy are appropriate – there are times when it is best to part ways.
If the time devoted to that customer negatively impacts the bottom line by becoming a time drain, too costly, or uses up too much of the human resources’ energy; then it is feasible that it is time to in essence “fire” the customer. At times, the customer may cease being worth attracting and may actually become a deficit for the business that should be removed from being allowed to continue to do that to the business.
There are also customers that will look to take advantage of efforts by certain businesses to retain customers and will try to leverage that to their benefit in ways that may call into question the sincerity of the original complaint. For example, complaining that a product failed to perform the intended purpose, but then asking for a replacement one – even though the product was not damaged or broken; just did not perform as expected; or claiming that one received food poisoning from a purchased box of food at a store, and then demanding that additional boxes be sent as compensation for getting the person sick cause one to question just how “right” the customer really is. If it does not pass the “sniff test” of what a reasonable person would do, it may require further consideration before handling the complaint as worthy of a company’s best efforts to please that customer. A dissatisfied customer who claims a product failed or caused them to become ill would not ordinarily want MORE of the same. In that instance, the issue is more likely an attempt by the customer to get something for nothing and should be treated with suspicion.
Handling customer complaints does require walking a fine line for business owners as they balance keeping customers happy and maintaining good will and at the same time preserving their bottom line and preventing others from taking advantage of them in an effort to essentially extort them. The Tim Horton example put a spotlight in the issue, but it is one that business owners have wrestled with for years.