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Client Complaints

The Client Complains - Now What?

Shirley Greene

Some rules of business are fairly straightforward: Grow your business, maintain or decrease your debt, and you will profit. Another good rule is that businesses selling a product cannot be managed the same as those offering a service. If you deal in tangibles, you are "market" driven. And, if you provide a service, you are "customer" driven. To me, that means a customer doesn't make contact until there is a problem. How many of us call a plumber to report the toilet DID flush? And, how many of your clients made an initial call to report their pup didn't need any training - it was perfectly behaved? Problems are what drive people to service businesses. No problem - no need for a trainer. Doesn't that make us LOVE problems? You might say that problems fuel the bottom line profits. And, that's correct, except when the "problem" is an unhappy client.

The number of satisfied clients leading to referrals and repeat business is universally important. Most business consultants offer up pages of information and yards of lists on how to make your clients happy. We understand that happy clients increase our business, and our profits, by repeat spending, purchasing additional goods or services and sending us those all-important referrals. It is easy to treat these people well.

However, an area often overlooked, and equally influential, is how unhappy clients are treated. The outcome of conflict resolution with complaining customers has the potential to decrease profits, sales and referrals. An unhappy customer, on average, repeats (and embellishes) their "tale of woe" to at least 11 people, while a satisfied customer many only brag 3 or 4 times. There is a large opportunity for every trainer to increase business revenues through appropriate management of client complaints.

For several years, I was a secret shopper. Hired by companies large and small, I went into a store and made a purchase from a targeted department. Then, I returned home and completed a lengthy checklist of positives and negatives to help the store evaluate its level of customer service. I soon grew to realize that evaluating customer contact through purchasing a product wasn't reality-based testing. What separated the "Chihuahuas from the Mastiffs" would more likely occur when an employee had to handle a product return or a customer complaint.

I have a theory: almost any employee can make a customer happy by selling them the product or service they've already come to buy. Perhaps raises should be based upon how well employees resolve customers' complaints. Promotions, on the other hand, should be earned by employees who not only resolve the complaint, but also retain the client and, therefore, generate repeated business opportunities. Bravo to those wise souls who can look upon a complainer as a potential profit center!

In addition to "secret shopping," I spent almost nine years of my life as the "buck stopper" in a large medical school/clinic atmosphere. Before a complaint or a lawsuit stopped at the executive offices of the President or Board of Directors, it came through me. So, if I didn't want to be Swiss cheese, I had to handle the situation and convert the dissatisfied into happy campers. Think I wasn't motivated to learn the art of negotiation?

The real moment of "customer service" truth for any trainer comes when that unhappy client walks onto the field or their message is retrieved from your answering machine or e-mail. What you do next determines the futures for all 3 sides of the training triangle: the client, their dog and YOU. So before we "engage the enraged," let's take a look at the psychology behind our upcoming "close encounter with the mad mind."

Product -vs- Service: Psyche 101

When a customer buys a product that doesn't work, it's returned to the store. "Hey, this VCR won't record." No one person is blamed - the "IT" didn't work.

But, when a "service" is the product and the promise of solving the customer's problem is broken, the focus of the client is squarely on the PERSON. "YOU made a noon appointment for my dog's first lesson. YOU never showed up and another dog came by and I was pulled across the grass in my work pants." Yep, it's pretty clear: YOU are to blame for everything else that happened with that dog, and their person, that entire day - - or maybe for the rest of their week. At least, that's how the client perceives the situation and, unfortunately, perception is reality.

STOP Before You Start

Dogs have taught me that in any "tussle," only one of those involved can be in charge for the tussle to find a resolution. The same applies to complaining clients. Before you open your mouth to respond to the client's complaint, stop. Find "higher mental ground." I don't mean Alpha posturing and growling out your response. After all, you wouldn't attempt to correct an unruly dog without the proper tools, i.e. collar, leash and a training plan. So get your mental tools in order and follow a game plan that will leave you, and your client, winners.

They Want To See You Sweat

Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer, says: "You can tell the novice from the journeyman carpenter not so much by the finished cabinet but by the sweat on their brows. One works so much harder to accomplish the same end than does the other." (Like me teaching "running downs in motion" across a field. The dog isn't panting and I am sweat-soaked!) As long as both cabinets look the same, the effort doesn't matter to the buyer. But, when you are dealing with a service, effort does matter, especially to the unhappy client. They want to watch your effort at solving their problem and they want to see you sweat!

With a game plan, you will be in charge. You understand that perception is reality and know about working smarter to accomplish "damage" control. Things are looking up - - for YOU, your profits and that client.

Battle Plan

Just as you have a plan of action should a trainer call in sick an hour before group class, you need a battle plan for handling complaints. As you develop one that feels natural for your business, keep mine handy.

Step One - Be Mentally Prepared

Take a moment and clear your mind of problems - even the one facing you. If you are physically in the presence of the "problem," ask for a 5-minute break. You don't want to begin "engagement" until you are mentally prepared to take control.

Of course, privacy is required. If you can't obtain it at the confrontation location, offer to call the client as soon as you get home or meet them at another time or place. You don't need an upset client's perceptions becoming contagious! Begin the encounter when you are certain that your head is clear and you have the ability to be calm. If you feel angry, the anger is in control - - not YOU. Being angry when trying to do damage control is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die.

Step Two - Stay Quiet (Listen)

When you are composed, begin the encounter. You are already in control because you began a process of "customer recovery" and have a compass pointing to resolution - your game plan. The best opening line for me is: "Tell me what happened." Then, by listening to the customer, and NOT INTERRUPTING, you will find out if the client feels annoyed or victimized. There is a HUGE difference between the two and how you'll need to make amends. Listen so that you can accurately diagnose the problem and retain control.

Annoyed -vs- Victimized

Ron Zemke, in The Service Edge, first referred to the concept of annoyed -vs- victimized. Here are some of my examples:

  • When both lines on your phone are out of order, you are annoyed. When both lines on your phone are out of order and you just ran a new ad for dog training that lists your phone number in 14-point type, you feel victimized.
  • When your flight arrives home late, you are annoyed. When your flight arrives late and you miss the last connecting plane to home, you feel victimized.
  • When your trainer arrives late, you are annoyed. When your trainer arrives late and you've just been dragged down the street by your dog and need 2 stitches in your lip, you feel___________ (you fill in that blank!)

Let the client talk until they've run out of wind. This is their chance to get it ALL out -- to vent. If they stop talking and their body language, or heavy breathing on the phone, tells you more is just under the surface, use a detective's trick. KEEP QUIET. In person, tilt you head and raise your brows - - that should get them emptied out. Don't engage or defend yourself; that is only counterproductive. This isn't a debate; it's damage control.

Now, I'm not saying let them abuse you. I am saying that as the one on the wrong end of the perceived "wrong doing," they get to talk FIRST. You have to LISTEN until they are all talked out if you are going to "win."

Step Three - Repeat After Me: "I'm Sorry."

Initially, no other comment is needed. Just say, "I'm sorry." You aren't making an apology for your acts. You aren't agreeing with their statements. You are removing the fuse from the powder keg.

What if the client says: "Well, what do you mean you are sorry?" Personally, I say: "I'm sorry that you feel this way and have had such a bad day."

If you remember you are in CONTROL and are leading the unhappy client down the pathway towards satisfaction recovery, it is much easier to disengage from their words. Speak calmly and with sincerity. As with dogs, your excitement increases the volatility of the encounter.

Step Four - Express Empathy

Expressing empathy - not sympathy - is evidence of your compassion. It says: "I know how you feel; I've been listening; I understand." It doesn't say: "You are right; I am wrong." Expressing empathy is essential for a customer who feels victimized. In many instances, you can't get to the next stages of fixing the problem until you express empathy. Actually, the client will let you know if you haven't properly expressed it - - they'll go back to telling their story and complaining.

A simple repeating of the major highlights of their story can begin to convince the customer that you were, in fact, listening. Adding: "I understand how you must feel and why you are so upset," takes the wind out of their sails. Most will then have no emotional need to keep repeating or escalating their complaint. If you understand the problem, surely the next step must be that you are going to do something for them. And, trust me, they are waiting to hear just what it will be.

I have a mentor who recommends you ask the customer: "What can I do for you?" He swears that they usually ask for less than he was willing to give. He's very successful; but personally, I'm chicken!

Step Five - Offer Them A Freebie

Anything "extra" can serve as a symbol that you are, in fact, ready to repent and acknowledge a blip in the radar screen. From free "upsizing" of the fries or drink with the hamburger that proved "fast food" was an oxymoron, to picking up the dry cleaning tab for the client whose dog dragged them down the field; it all serves the purpose - something tangible that says "I owe you and the debt is paid." The freebie needs to be in proportion to the PERCEIVED wrongdoing. Had the client required stitches in his lip for having been dragged behind his dog, free dry cleaning for his pants will not be viewed as enough retribution.

Follow Up!

Once your offer of amends is accepted, the immediate battle is over and the client should be satisfied with the outcome. Of course, having been in control all along, you secretly knew YOU were destined to be victorious. After all, you've defused the situation, kept it from spreading and retained the client.

Now comes your biggest opportunity. Give the client an appropriate period of time and then "follow up."

Inspect what you expect. You expect that everything is fine; call and find out. Make sure the dry cleaners did remove the grass stain from the work pants or that those stitches are healing nicely. Once again, you've made the customer feel that their complaint was heard and that they are important to YOU. Even if you never see their dog again, I doubt this individual will have anything negative to say if your name comes up at the next trial or match.

The Real World

Ah. If only every problem were so easily solved in the real world. Of course, you will hear from clients whose complaints are petty and mean-spirited. And, you may hear from clients who are clearly out of line. And, like all of us, you may have to face the fact that you should never have agreed to work with that "problem waiting to happen." Period. And, we all live and learn. Mistakes are what make us "experienced."

  • If you are inclined to put some of my suggestions to use, here are a few additional pointers to keep in mind:
  • If you are angry - it WILL show in person or be heard on the phone.
  • If you are sarcastic - the customer will know it and the problem will GROW.
  • If you can't feel empathy for what your client has endured, this approach won't work. No approach is better than an insincere one.
  • If the item offered as a "freebie" is measurably smaller than the perceived wrong doing, you have INSULTED the client, which is a HUGE problem.
  • If you did not follow up and the problem wasn't completely solved, you have damaged your relationship with that customer - probably permanently. They now see you as insincere.
  • If the customer smiles after the freebie and is pleased during the follow up, you've really WON the battle and, most likely, the WAR of client retention against your competitors.

And remember:

The PERSON is more important than the PROBLEM. Make them happy through conflict resolution and then go back and work on why the problem happened, talk with the "responsible" employee, do paperwork involving a refund or credit, etc. Take care of the PERSON first.

Finding out who is at fault is NOT the customer's concern. Blame doesn't solve the problem. If you own or manage the business, take full responsibility. RESOLVE the situation and then look back to determine what, if anything, can be done to keep the same problem from happening to another client. NEVER point fingers at others in front of the client and never draw anyone else into the conflict resolution process.

Good luck with your next problem client!

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