Cranky Clients: A Guide to the Disgruntled Customer

No matter how hard you try or how much you do to satisfy customers, there will always be a few who just are not happy. They may not be happy with the product, the service, or you … or they might be having a rotten day and you happen to be the target.

Let’s look at some of the ways a professional salesperson can turn an upset customer into a satisfied customer.

‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T!’ The first thing to remember is that customers, no matter what they say or do to you, deserve your respect. Remember, you’re there to serve customers, not just to sell a product.

Here’s a story that illustrates this point: A customer goes to a dairy to return some milk that was sour when she bought it. She tells the employee the milk is sour and she wants to exchange it. The employee takes the milk, opens the top, smells it, and says, “You’re right, this milk is sour.” The customer looks at the employee and says indignantly, “That’s the most offensive thing I’ve ever had happen to me!” She tells the shocked employee that since she told him it was sour, for him to smell it was offensive—as if he’d doubted her word. The moral of the story is that the smallest act, even an innocent one, can result in an upset customer.

An ounce of prevention. Try to avoid problems by keeping customers happy to begin with. First, take the time, at the beginning of a potential sale, to get to know your customer by engaging in meaningful non-business conversations. One reason we take time to establish a relationship is not only to make a sale today but also to earn repeat business from the customer in the future. If you have a relationship that’s built on trust, you’re less likely to have an upset customer.

Here’s an example: You have a customer who has bought an engagement ring, wedding rings, anniversary gifts, and so on from you over the years. Chances are that if this customer has purchased that much merchandise from you, he’s been happy with the products and the service.

During his next visit, he purchases a necklace for his daughter, who is graduating from high school, but the necklace breaks as soon as she places it on her neck. However, because of the relationship you have established with this customer, there is a good chance this problem will be resolved easily, and both parties will be satisfied. Because of the relationship you developed with the customer, he never even thinks about getting upset. Because he trusts you, he believes you’ll treat him right. In the end, you have avoided an unpleasant situation with an upset customer because of the previous work you put into building rapport with him. Remember the old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Provide quality service when times are good, and the bad times won’t be that bad.

Keeping your cool. Still, sooner or later we’re bound to encounter upset customers. Rule No. 1: Don’t take it personally! You won’t solve anyone’s problem if you become upset yourself. Stay as neutral as possible and maintain your professionalism.

Never let yourself to be drawn into an argument with a customer. First, it’s unprofessional; second, you might say something you’ll later regret; and third, news of poor customer service tends to spread like wildfire among potential customers. The easiest way to maintain your poise and professionalism is to stick to the facts—the facts of the sale, the product, and anything to do with the sale.

Rule No. 2: Allow the customer to vent, no matter how long it takes. Your job is to sift through their words and separate the anger from the actual problem. Once he has finished, you can begin to address the problem itself.

The first thing you should do, however, is apologize to the customer—not necessarily for whatever the problem may be (unless you deem it necessary), but rather because the customer is upset. For example, you might say, “I’m so sorry you’re upset. Let’s see if we can find a way to make you feel better about the situation.” By acknowledging that the customer is upset, you let him know that you want to find a solution that will satisfy him.

A good technique is to simply ask, “What can I do to make this right for you?” You may be surprised at how little the customer expects. He may say he’d like to exchange the product for a new one. If that’s your store policy anyway, problem solved! You turned an upset customer into a satisfied one simply by following store policy. It won’t always be that easy, but the customer’s answer should give you a starting point.

Make sure you’re aware of your store’s policies regarding returns and exchanges. If a customer thinks you don’t know what you’re doing, he’ll become even more upset.

However, no one can be prepared for everything all the time. If you must leave to look something up or talk to a manager, be sure to communicate that to him: “Excuse me for just a moment. I need to speak with my manager and find out the best way I can help you.” You may just need to ask a simple question that has nothing to do with the customer, but you want the customer to feel that you are doing everything you can on his behalf.

Be sure to return as quickly as possible with the necessary information. If you keep the customer waiting more than two or three minutes, he’ll become more upset and might start sharing his disappointment with other customers in the store.

When all else fails … If you’ve done everything in your power to satisfy the customer and nothing has worked, it might be time to turn the customer over to the manager or owner. Just as turning over a sale can save the sale, turning over a customer can often save the customer.

Timing is key. If you do it too early, you run the risk of making the customer feel that you are too busy to deal with his problem. If you wait too long, the customer could be so upset that it won’t matter whom you turn them over to. When you feel that it might be time for a new approach, simply say, “I understand that you are upset; let me have you talk to the manager—I am sure that he/she will be able to assist you. Would that be okay?”

In some rare instances, you will have to deal with a customer who is simply taking advantage of you, your company, and/or your merchandise. We are not in business to rent merchandise; we are here to sell products. When this happens, I apply the “three-strike” rule—in other words, there are occasions when you may have to “fire” a customer. But you should always begin by giving them the benefit of the doubt.

The time may come, however, when you might have to say: “I will take care of the situation this time at my expense. However, this is the last time. Should any other problems occur, I will not be able to take care of the situation and may even recommend that we don’t do business together again.”

The fact is, we are all going to encounter upset customers from time to time, probably more than we would like. What separates the average salesperson from the professional salesperson is how those situations are handled. The average salesperson will simply dismiss every customer with a problem and move on to the next customer. The problem with that is obvious: Eventually, you will run out of customers who do not have problems, and pretty soon you are the one with a problem—i.e., no customers.

Remember, every upset customer has friends, and they are more likely to tell them about bad experiences rather than good ones. Your job is to make sure as many customers as possible have a good experience.