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Rude customers

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When it was recently brought to my attention, I was surprised. So I checked for myself and found it to be true. A growing number of businesses are challenging the maxim “the customer is always right”. Cantankerous customers are allegedly on the rise and some businesses are saying enough is enough.

To this end, the Internet is replete with articles explaining how to sack disgruntled customers. “Bad” customers include those who constantly whinge, make unreasonable requests, demand discounts or threaten social media retribution if they don’t get their way.

In short, if you make life hell for a company or its employees you might be shown the door. Apparently, at the top of the hit list of customers being weeded out are those who cause unnecessary grief, thereby sapping an organisation of time, energy and money.

I am the first to acknowledge that most businesses have customers who are difficult to deal with. I also acknowledge that in the social media age the peeved can vent publicly causing reputational damage. So the idea of firing troublesome customers has appeal. But I think that the best strategy is to kill ’em with kindness.

Customers become rude or angry for a variety of reasons - some justified, some not. Rather than labelling them “bad apples”, take the high road with irate customers and try to defuse the situation. Yes, it’s not easy, but in most cases it can be done. At Gateway, we call it service recovery.

Service recovery is more than complaint handling. It’s recovering a customer’s positive feelings after a bad experience. Complaint handling connotes just addressing the negative. Service recovery means turning the issue into a positive. When a company reaches out after a negative experience, the customer feels valued.

Few things impress a complainer more than getting the attention of the head honcho. That’s why I make it easy for Gateway members to complain directly to me. My email address for member feedback is clearly printed on each quarterly member newsletter and you can also find it on the Gateway website.

At Gateway, when a member takes the time to tell us we’re not doing something right, we cherish that feedback. We do not view a complaint as a negative experience but an opportunity to learn. Complaints represent free advice that pinpoints where you need to improve and this feedback is often more valuable than expensive focus groups.

Many people (and I’m one of them) rarely complain - they just take their bat and ball and go elsewhere. They vote with their feet and you never see them again. I’ve told Gateway staff that we should thank members who take the time to tell us their gripes as they are essentially giving us a second chance.

Those who complain come in many guises. The angry complainer screams and shouts. The aggressive complainer makes threats. The serial complainer is never happy. The opportunistic complainer wants compensation. The reluctant complainer apologises for causing a fuss. And the multimedia complainer uploads videos and photos of their grievance.

Regardless of the persona of the complainer and their particular beef, they are all venting their dissatisfaction and want to be heard. So the first thing that you must do is to listen with empathy. Stand in their shoes, see the world through their eyes and let them speak without interruption.

Hearing them out gives complainers a chance to let off some steam. Once the customer sees that you are not defensive, the situation becomes more manageable. In most cases, the customer will move out of their emotional right-brain to their rational left-brain and be prepared to listen to you.

Now it’s your turn to talk. Tell the customer that you are sorry. Thank him for sharing his concerns. Empathise with the inconvenience that he has suffered. Reiterate what he has said. Assure him that you will own the problem. Tell him how you will recover the situation by offering solutions.

The skilful use of language can disarm a tetchy customer and help build a bridge of rapport. Once you have solved the customer’s problem, the final step in the service recovery process is to make sure that it does not happen again. Examine what occurred and re-engineer the process so that no other customer suffers the same fate.

The Walt Disney organisation is renowned for its service, but like all companies, is not perfect. So it has developed a five-step service recovery (complaints management) process which is easily remembered with the acronym HEARD - hear, empathise, apologise, resolve and diagnose.

Australian consumers want to be HEARD. As a nation, we love to complain and are among the most aggressive complainers in the world. Aussies speak their minds and increasingly won’t grin and bear it when they are not happy. This just goes to prove that you can’t please all the people all the time.

Regards,
Paul J. Thomas, CEO

Comments

avatar John Clark
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Congratulations on a very well articulated blog on what I believe to be one of the biggest issues facing business today.
It never ceases to amaze me how business forgets the real cost of acquiring a new customer and how arrogant businesses can be when "terminating" a customer because they have a issue with that organisation.
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avatar Des Tubridy Tubridydes@gmail.com
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It is impressive to see the adoption of a psychologically well nuanced strategy.
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CEO Paul Thomas