The April Small Business Roundtable featured a lively discussion on how to deal with challenging customers. Whether it is a one-time issue or a constant complainer, all agreed that this is one of the most difficult issues of being a small business owner.
Usually, you do not want to lose them as customers, but someone who is dissatisfied can potentially hurt your reputation and consume so much time and energy that it affects your will to be in business. It can also pit employees against each other and destroy the potential for customer referrals, the backbone of many small businesses. After all, the satisfied customer is less likely to praise you on social media than the unhappy customer is to complain.
If you, your company, or one of your employees does something to bring on the customers annoyance, of course you apologize and take steps to make it right. However, what if the dissatisfaction is not so reasonable? The most important step to prevent frustration on your part or that of your customers is to properly set expectations. Make sure that your clients know what you do, what your processes are, and what the customers can expect from your company.
This may take some education on your part. Are things clearly spelled out on your website or other means of communicating with your customers? Don’t hide anything in the “fine print” and expect customers to find it. Be up front with what products and services you provide and what the customer is supposed to do to receive those goods or services. Some of the simple rules of civility apply – treat others as you wish to be treated, and listen to what the customer is saying. Sometimes, a customer will complain about perfectly fine service just to try to get a lower price – this is rare, but those folks can be dealt with calmly by explaining the situation.
The first thing to do when faced with a customer complaint is to find out what the customer wants – what were their expectations? Make sure to treat the customer with respect and try not to be defensive – graciousness can often de-escalate a touchy situation. Make sure that your employees are trained in what to do with an unsatisfied customer, and empower them to solve many of the problems themselves (perhaps up to a certain dollar amount).
Sometimes an unhappy customer just wants to vent – all that you have to do is listen and let them know that you hear what they are saying. You can sympathize with a situation without giving in by simply saying that you are sorry that they feel that way. If you can solve their issue and maintain a valuable relationship, do so as quickly as possible. If it will take some time, let them know the process and keep them in the loop so that they know that you value them as a customer. This assumes that you can reasonably recompense them for their trouble, and that it is important for your business to do so.
If you reach an impasse and it appears that there is nothing that you can reasonably do to satisfy that client, it may be necessary to let them go. You can do so by remaining calm and letting them know that you realize this is not working out and you may be able to refer them elsewhere. No one wants to “fire” a client, but sometimes that is the best option and it helps to have an exit strategy ready. For major issues that involve a significant payment it may be best to involve a third-party mediator to review the situation.