Selling Successfully (Your One-Stop Resource for Setting Up, Managing and Marketing)

Dealing With The Dissatisfied Customer

Without a doubt, working with someone who is difficult can be mentally draining and stressful. Anyone who has held a job (ANY job) is certain to have more than one story about an unreasonable, angry or demanding person in the workplace, be it a boss, co-worker, employee or customer. As each of these working relationships is unique and requires a different approach, I'd like to focus on just one particular type of negative or difficult person -- the dissatisfied customer.

In the past 16 years I have worked in a variety of fields -- hotel sales, marketing, property management, retail, in-home pet care, international exporting, and antiques/collectibles. While this may sound like a "hodge-podge" career with no logical connection, they all have one thing in common: business management with a strong emphasis on superior customer service. No matter what field you work in, one universal rule applies to every successful business:

Product or Service for Sale + Satisfied Customers = INCOME

In a perfect world, every customer would leave our shops thrilled with their purchase, satisfied with the price, and pleased with the high level of customer service we provided during the transaction. In the real world, this isn't always the case. So, what do you do when a difficult, negative, or hard-to-please customer comes to you with a complaint? How do you turn this uncomfortable situation around and (hopefully) end up with a satisfied customer? The next time you are faced with a challenging buyer, you might want to keep these tips in mind:

Stay Calm -- If a customer is yelling (or sending hostile e-mails), the situation will not improve if you respond in kind. Take a deep breath, count to 10 before answering, consider your words carefully, and attempt to maintain a friendly (or at least neutral) tone. By the way, those stupid little "smiley faces" people type in their e-mail messages ARE helpful in conveying good will, and show you are trying to be helpful, friendly and positive. Couldn't hurt! :-)

Listen Objectively -- They may have a valid complaint, but you'll never know what it is (and be able to learn from it), if you're not willing to listen. You may not like what you hear, but it's important to keep an open mind.

Bounce It Off A Neutral Party -- Although this isn't possible in face-to-face customer contact, you do have this option as an Internet seller. Without "naming names" or giving away personal information about the buyer, ask a friend for their objective opinion of the situation. Are you being too sensitive? Is the buyers' demand or complaint reasonable? How do they suggest you handle the problem? A person outside the situation is more likely to be unemotional, and may help you to see the customer's problem from a fresh perspective.

Don't Hide -- When faced with a confrontation, our instincts tell us to either fight or run. As the "Stay Calm" rule eliminates the first option, you will naturally want to flee. Bad idea! Nothing inflames a customer more than being ignored. If you receive an e-mail complaint, don't hide it under a stack of paperwork until next week -- handle it immediately. Time does not "heal all wounds" when it comes to a dissatisfied buyer. In fact, an angry customer is more likely to share their experience with others, possibly damaging your reputation.

It's NOT Personal - A complaint about your business is not necessarily a criticism of you. When I worked as the Department Manager of a hotel chain 800# reservation service, it was my responsibility to take calls from dissatisfied customers. These were generally folks whose last words to my employee were "I want to talk to your Supervisor RIGHT NOW!". (Yes, I LOVED my job.) During the years I worked for this company, I was called every nasty name in the book, and took the heat for problems other people created. The lesson I learned there: although they were yelling at me, they were not mad at me personally. (See "Listen Objectively" above!)

Be Sympathetic -- Empathizing with an unhappy customer will go a long way in diffusing a bad situation. For example, it would be helpful to say, "I understand that you are dissatisfied with your purchase, and feel badly that "X" was not in the condition you expected. As I missed the flaw you described, I would be happy to offer you a full refund, including all postage costs." Your response to receiving the complaint might have been, "Geez, give me a break... I'm NOT perfect! You're a JERK, and I don't care if you're happy.", but your initial (emotional) reaction is not likely to be in the best interest of resolving the problem or pleasing the buyer.

Be Honest - I don't think I ever told a lie as a child that I got away with. I'm just not good at deceiving people, so I learned early that honesty really is the best policy. If you failed to see a flaw in an item you sold, admit to the mistake and offer a full refund. If you drop an item and damage it, don't ship it to the customer and blame the damage on the Post Office. People may not LIKE your truthful answers, but they will respect you for admitting your mistake.

Don't Pass The Buck - It's easy to say, "it's not my fault". Even if you can successfully blame someone else, it usually doesn't fix the problem or make the dissatisfied customer any happier. Take responsibility for the mistakes your company may have made, and do what you can to fix the situation, even if someone else caused it. Buyers will respect your courage, and will likely be more cooperative when they realize that you are trying to help. If the situation WAS your fault, a simple, but sincere, "I'm sorry" may be all that is necessary to begin mending the relationship.

The bottom line? Dealing with dissatisfied buyers is not a pleasant job. Mistakes are inevitable, and learning to deal with uncomfortable situations is important to the growth of your business. How you handle complaints and difficult people, or DON'T handle them, can make the difference between being a surviving business, or a thriving business!