Retailer Corner: Thanks for Complaining!

By Tom Jennings, WFCA vice president, professional development


I was visiting with a flooring dealer recently who stated, “I just hate customers who complain!” Imagine his reaction when I responded, “They’re my favorite type of customer.” Obviously, both statements did not reflect what we truly felt. He no more hated a customer than I preferred a disappointed one to a happy one. My point was that many customers who are less than completely satisfied with your firm’s efforts will never say so – to you. What they will do, however, is tell everyone else that will listen! Have you ever been in a restaurant where the food or service was just mediocre and were asked, “How’s everything?” You likely responded to the effect of everything is fine. What you really meant was, “I’m not going to make this mistake twice!” Then, when asked by others, you’re not bashful in expressing your true feelings. We’ve all done it. Customers who do speak up give you the opportunity to reclaim their consideration for repeat or referral business.

There are two obvious realities for all businesses every day when they unlock the door. The first is: try as you might, it’s not possible to please every customer on the first try. The second is: it is virtually impossible to have a healthy business long-term by selling only to first-time buyers. Your firm must have return and referred customers to grow and prosper. Given these realities, it is paramount we learn to not only avoid disappointing our customers, but to master the skill of responding to their concerns when they occur.

…it is virtually impossible to have a healthy business long-term by selling only to first-time buyers. Your firm must have return and referred customers to grow and prosper.

Notice that I said concerns – not complaints. I believe most conversations with less-than-satisfied customers begin with phrases such as “we’re not sure if this is correct…” or “we’re disappointed that…” Typically, they don’t begin in an accusatory or personal tone. Unfortunately, our response too often steers them in the wrong direction. I believe a complaint is defined as a concern that was not handled well initially. Let’s examine a few key behaviors that will minimize customer dissatisfaction:

Manage expectations. A research project that my firm was a sponsor of indicated that nearly five of six customer service-related calls to flooring businesses were the result of improper customer expectations or poor communications – not subpar installation skills. This is a critical point to realize. The customer is five times as likely to be disappointed with something that was either said, or not said, than she is to be disappointed in the quality of an installer’s actual work. Simply stated, it’s critical that all parties involved know not only what is expected of them, but also are aware of how it impacts others. Easy to say. Not so easy to do. Consistently successful firms have systems in place to ensure it gets done!

Give thanks! When a customer calls with any objection – thank them! State that while it is your goal to make every customer satisfied initially, it doesn’t always happen. Emphasize that the only way we can improve is for you to share your experiences with us. Listen closely to what the customer has to say. Many feel as if they must be ready for an argument when they raise their voice in disapproval. An empathetic response will typically calm them down. Remember that this customer represents not only our present – but our future as well. Treat them accordingly!

Get moving! The best time to respond to a concern is now! Nothing positive happens by making a customer wait when she is disappointed. Why dealers procrastinate when dealing with concerned customers is beyond me. Just deal with it! Remember, it must be dealt with at the customer’s convenience – not yours. She doesn’t feel she created this issue and is not going to appreciate being inconvenienced for its remedy.

Be specific. It is not always possible, or necessary, that we act immediately to rectify the customer’s concern. The sense of urgency deals with how we respond. It is important, however, that a customer has a very clear understanding of what actions are planned, when they will occur, how long they will take, etc. She will typically wait for a reasonable period to have the appropriate measures taken. But she must know what she is waiting for. “We’ll get back as quick as we can” and “we’ll stop by when we are in the vicinity” are not action plans! Remember that this opportunity is our mulligan with this customer. If we respond well, it can turn into her having positive feelings about our business. If we drop the ball again, she’ll be gone for good.

Follow through! It’s always important that we contact our customers after an installation is completed to be sure they are satisfied. It’s especially critical to do so after any concerns are dealt with. This is the time to ensure efforts to please your customer were positive and not in vain. Be good to your customers and they will be good to you.

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