Improving Customer Service

Issue # 25 of 70 

John T. Self, Ph.D.
By: Dr. John T. Self

Negative Customer Blues

We've talked often about how life in the customer service lane is full of stress and difficult customers. We've looked at how this can be an ingredient to employee burnout, negative attitudes, or be responsible for someone leaving the industry entirely.

But dealing with negative customers is a fact of service life. The good news is that this seemingly "lose-lose" situation can be turned around. If it's handled correctly, difficult customers can be turned into some of the most loyal, long term customers you'll ever see. So buckle your seat belts, take a deep breath, and come along as we look at turning these "service disconnects" into opportunities.

First; Assume the customer is telling the truth.
If you train your employees to always assume the customer is truthful, you have just taken away a major source of stress related to service careers. The employee is not having a confrontation, nor are they conducting an interrogation; They are not looking for the negative, but listening to what is being told to them without having to be a judge that must rule in favour of the company because of a misplaced loyalty.

Second; Let the customer talk.
Let them air out the whole situation. This accomplishes two things. It allows the customer to tell their story with all the details and emotion that they feel is necessary. This step is vital to let the customer drain some of their emotion and anger. Don't say anything, except to give body language that you are listening intently.

A good idea BEFORE you start the listening/information-gathering step is to delegate phone calls and other interruptions to someone else so that your entire attention is devoted to the customer. You want an automatic jump in the level of anger and frustration for the customer? Just interrupt the story with "excuse me," "Just a minute", or "What were you saying?" You have just entered "lose-lose" territory. Always listen without interruption or comments - just listen. Also remember that listening is the beginning of the information gathering process for yourself, which is vital not only to rectifying the customer's problem, but to avoiding it in the future.

Third; Be empathetic.
This is the step to (finally) begin communicating. Express understanding with how they feel or were treated. You're not admitting guilt. You don't even have to agree with them.

You do have to communicate understanding. Your tone of voice and body language both go a long way to reinforce what you are say. In fact, without the proper tone or body language, your words will sound hollow.

I hate when a manager comes over to my table in a restaurant with their hands on their hips, challenging, " Is there a problem here?" when all I wanted to do was say hello and comment on the wonderful time I was having.

Emphasis on was.

Fourth; Understanding.
This is the main communication step. This is where you ask any questions that you need to have the complete picture of the negative experience. Ask relevant questions to clarify your understanding of the facts. Resist jumping to conclusions until you are satisfied that you understand the entire situation.

Fifth; Solution.
Solve the problem. Come to closure that you both feel good about. Remember the customer was telling you the truth. Tell the customer what you will do to rectify the situation. Make the customer feel good about the solution. Do not sound angry yourself or make the customer feel guilty.

A good guideline is to deliver more than you promised. For example, if you said you would have the replacement to the disgruntled customer in five days, deliver it in three.

Sixth; Follow-up.
If there is any way to follow-up with the customer after the fact, you need to do it. Whether by e-mail, letter or phone, this step is very impressive.

Seventh; Take steps to fix the problem(s) that caused the problem in the first place.
A good idea to keep a log or journal of customer complaints to enable you to see any trends. Wouldn't you rather prevent problems than fix problems?

John T. Self is a lecturer at The Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly Pomona). Prior to entering academia, Dr. Self spent fifteen years in the restaurant industry. While in the corporate world, he worked for several chains including Chili's and Steak and Ale, and as vice president of a regional restaurant chain overseeing six restaurants with sales of over twenty million dollars. He has also owned three independent restaurants, including a comedy club.
Dr. Self has also been involved in the development of international hospitality programs. While at Golden Gate University, he started the partnership with Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China and is continuing in that involvement at Cal Poly.

Improving Customer Service #25 of 70: View all in the Table of Contents

For more customer service articles, visit the Customer Service series on the new Sideroad: Practical Advice Straight from The Experts.

Text © Dr. John T. Self, 1997,1998. Part of the original Sideroad.