Tips, ideas, information for the wholesaler on the go.

Topic of the month: Handling upset customers

  • Don't patronize them. Don't tell them they are the first one ever to complain about a particular problem. What they hear you saying is that you don't believe they have a problem, and if they do, it's their fault.

    Even if it's true that nobody else has ever complained, they won't believe you, and even if they believe you, it doesn't help one bit to solve their problem.

  • Let them vent. Don't add fuel to the fire by interrupting, hanging up or walking away. Listen patiently to the complaint and wait for a pause before speaking.

  • Stay calm. Even if they call you names or insult your firm, approach the situation rationally. Emphasize the need to work together to figure out a way to solve the problem.

  • Gather facts. One way to stay calm is to ask follow-up questions aimed at clarifying and elaborating on the information provided by the customer. Preface these questions with phrases such as, "Let me make sure I understand," or "Let's go through this step by step."

  • Empathize with them. Without necessarily admitting your company is in the wrong, say things like, "I can understand why you're upset. I would be, too, in the same situation."

  • If you are wrong, admit it. If it's apparent the customer has a legitimate beef, say so.

    "We've looked into everything you've told us, and you are right. We did mess up. Nothing I say or do can change that. What's important now is to do everything we can to make things right with you, and for that I will need your cooperation."

  • Ask them how to resolve it. If a solution isn't clear-cut, ask the customer what she or he would do in your situation. Don't suggest a response, but be prepared to offer a full refund, steep discount, an upgrade, replacement or anything else the customer specifies. Usually, you'll find them asking for less than full restitution.

  • Follow up. Whatever you promise to do, make sure it gets done as fully and quickly as possible. Don't assume that the person charged with rectifying the situation will do so.

    The worst possible customer service sin is to fail to respond to a customer complaint. You may never hear from the customer again, but that's the least of your problems. The worst part is all the bad-mouthing they'll do about you to everyone they know. If the problem's severe enough, it could even lead to litigation.

  • Be accessible. Tell them to call you on your direct line or at your personal e-mail address to report future problems or complaints.

    Having access to the owner's direct line is a supreme confidence booster. It tells them more than any words you can say that their complaints will be taken seriously.

    Many of you are no doubt thinking you don't have time for such stuff. Nor do any of you really want to fill your day listening to customer complaints. It's about the least pleasant part of anyone's duties.

    Do it anyway. Not only does it help soothe customers' ruffled feathers, it's a good way to monitor the customer service performance of your employees.

  • Ask them to join your quality-assurance team. Com-plainers sometimes are smart people who pinpoint a systemic problem you don't even know you have. Ask such people whether they would be willing to advise your company on a regular basis, for modest compensation. All it might take is picking up a dinner tab once or twice a year.