Monday, May 23, 2011

Is the Customer Always Right?

Ask anyone who works with the public and they’ll tell you that one of the keys to survival is having a good sense of humor and the ability to let criticism roll off your back.   I learned this lesson quickly when I operated businesses in Bar Harbor during the summer tourist season.   I love people.  If I didn’t I never would have operated an inn or tour boat business.  I’m the one who says during a job interview, “I’m a people person”.  I’m also a people pleaser.  I truly believe in offering the very best customer service possible!

If you own a business it’s likely that you prefer positive feedback over criticism - don’t we all!  But we have to keep in mind that we can’t be everything to everybody - that we can’t please all of the people all of the time.   In my ten years in the summer tourism business I can count on one hand the customers who weren’t happy with my services.  99.9% of my customers were fabulous and thrilled with everything.  The remaining few just weren’t happy and there was nothing I could do to please them. 

Every business owner will encounter an unhappy customer every now and then.  Sometimes the cause of their unhappiness is something you did or didn’t do for them - sometimes they are the type of people whom you just can’t please.  I had several who were just playing “complaint games” to try to get freebies out of me.  I caught on to that pretty quickly!   It’s difficult dealing with difficult customers.  It’s difficult not to personalize it and let it ruin your day!  

Truth is the customer isn’t always right – but they have a right to complain.  My favorite unhappy customer was allergic to cats and I had one at my inn.   This information was made very clear in all of my marketing materials.  When she checked in and saw “said cat” – she informed me that she had serious allergies not only to cats – but also to couches, curtains, bed linens – you name it!    

As one who also suffers from allergies I can relate to her plight but I was not about to remove the cat, cover the couches with plastic and take down the curtains as she demanded.   She really should have made me aware of this when she called to make the reservation in the first place.  To resolve the problem I kindly offered to book her at another establishment (a plain white walled hotel) and refund her deposit.   The issue was resolved  - she left satisfied - and my sanity, cat and couch remained intact!

Here’s how I learned to deal with unhappy customers regardless of whom was at fault.  First and foremost try to find out why the customer is unhappy.  Really listen to their complaint without getting defensive.  Make it clear that you want to make it right.  Then do what you can to fix the problem.  If the problem isn’t something you can fix - offer another way to remedy the situation - so at the very least they’ll feel that you took care of them in some way.   This may mean giving a refund or freebie and that’s ok when the situation calls for it.  

I had several guests at the inn who were not happy because there were some services they were looking for that my property didn’t provide - such as a restaurant, bar or room service.  Rather than having an unhappy guest - I would offer to find them a location more suitable to their needs and refund their deposit.  They left happy and I was left with an inn full of guests who genuinely wanted to be there and that made my life easier!

This is called the LEARN technique and you can use it the next time you are dealing with an unhappy customer… to turn them into a happy one…

L – LISTEN to the customer – they want to be heard!
E – EMPATHIZE with the customer – let them know you understand how they feel

A – APOLOGIZE to the customer – do not get defensive

R – RESOLVE the problem – tell the customer how you plan to correct it

N – Do it NOW – take immediate action to resolve the problem

In this day and age of social media and the ease with which customers can complain about you publicly – it becomes even more critical that you do whatever you can to “make it right” in the eyes of the customer regardless of whom was right.

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