It's happened at least once to every small business owner: A customer isn’t satisfied with a product or service because it either doesn't meet his needs or isn't the quality she expected. Every now and again, such dissatisfaction can make a once-pleasant customer irate. What to do?
Figure out if the dissatisfaction is product-related, and take it from there, suggests Eric Engler, owner of Engler's Custom Pro Shop at EMR Paintball Park in New Milford, Pennsylvania. “The best thing to do is [help them] find another product on the market that does meet their expectations.”
“When people are really angry – not just unhappy – it's because they're having a bad experience,” he explains. In these cases, Engler will make amends with free product or repairs, which he says is a worthwhile investment in building repeat customers. “Most of the time, they'll come back and buy something else because they know you took care of them.”
Like Engler, Cindy Thul of Party Animals for Kids in St. Charles, Illinois, says she doesn't let unhappy customers stay that way. A knack for reading people, assessing their needs, and responding to those needs quickly, are her secrets to customer service success. So is an upbeat attitude. “You have to put on a happy face no matter how bad your day is going,” Thul says.
The notion that customers respond to a positive attitude is Business 101, most agree, and it should start with the store owner and trickle down to management and sales staff. Alan Howard of Plesser's Appliances in Babylon, New York, says he holds sales meeting three times a week to discuss ways to raise the level of customer service and keep shoppers happy.
“I encourage my salespeople to sell to a customer's needs, not their wants,” Howard explains, adding that it’s all about asking the right questions to help customers make the best buying decisions. “It starts at the front desk. Your sales force has to be properly trained, must know the products, and sell them correctly.”
Restitution or retribution?
Unfortunately, there are those customers that you just can’t make happy regardless of the level of service you provide or discounts you offer. Identifying these types right away can save you money. First, says Howard, identify whether the customer wants “restitution or retribution.”
When a customer wants restitution, you can make them happy – and secure repeat business – with discounts or free merchandise. Most retail owners give discounts or coupons for future purchases, but Howard sometimes offers gift certificates to other local businesses. “If someone's stove broke, we might give them a gift certificate to a restaurant on Main Street. It builds our community of small businesses and encourages people to explore the area, while giving them something they can really use and showing them it's not all about them coming back to spend more money atour store.”
When a customer is seeking retribution, however, even freebies won’t help. That customer just wants a sounding board. Take he or she aside, into a private office if possible, and listen. That doesn't mean you should tolerate verbal abuse -- it's within your rights as a business owner to ask a customer to leave if you feel threatened. But most times, by conveying your understanding of the situation, you can turn things around and create a happy customer without it costing your business a dime.
Nicole Jones, owner of Chicago, Illinois-based Sensual Steps Shoe Salon, says, “Some people are just emotional and want to take it out on you. It's important to maintain professionalism regardless of whether the customer is right or wrong,” she says.
Learning from your customers
Sometimes, customers seeking retribution actually offer a learning experience to store owners. Jones relays the story of a client whose pre-ordered boots were not delivered from the manufacturer by the expected date. Jones did everything right, sending apology letters to the customers who pre-ordered the merchandise and keeping them posted on expected shipping dates. But this one customer would not accept anything less than the boots she pre-ordered on the day she expected them.
Jones went beyond expectations, trying to order the boots from another retailer's website -- to no avail. The customer was finally appeased when the boots arrived, but the incident caused Jones to change her policies.
“Now, if I do a pre-order, it comes with a letter stating that anything can happen and delays or cancellations from the manufacturer are completely beyond our control. I let customers know about this policy when they pre-order the product to prevent misunderstandings,” Jones said.
When to break policy
Policies help store owners adhere to specific standards and operating procedures, but it's equally important to know when it's time to break your own policy to keep a customer happy. For instance, Thul requires a minimum of six children to host a birthday party, but in certain cases will permit a smaller party. “I had a grandmother with cancer who wanted a tea party with her three granddaughters. How could I say no to that?” Thul says making exceptions to store policy has never come back to bite her.
“If I had to do it often, it would absolutely hurt my bottom line because it really isn't cost-effective, but people are people, not just dollar signs coming into your business. You can build a wonderful customer base by adding that personal touch, whether it means making an exception to your policy or just offering a little 'something extra,'” she says.