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The MBA Course: Stop Being Bullied by Customers

The customer is always right-except when the customer is wrong. Trying to perform acrobatics to please belligerent, unreasonable, and incorrect customers can cost you far more than simply kissing their business good-bye.

For decades, Cross Pens had a policy of replacing and repairing any of its products, no matter what the cause. At one point, a man who dropped his pen into his lawnmower (presumably while keeping track of the grass clippings), which promptly mangled it beyond recognition, was rewarded with a brand new instrument. This stuff became legendary. And dumb.

Cross was blown out of the water by competitors, most notably Mont Blanc, more in tune with the times and less concerned about the past. Today, Cross has missed more dividend payments than it has honored, has laid off a large portion of its staff, is seeking a buyer for its computer business, and may well be facing even more severe and unpleasant alternatives. Pleasing the customer at all costs makes for good press but lousy profits.

If there’s even a reasonable supposition that your product was defective or your service was inferior, refund the money or provide a credit, by all means. But if the customer decided that, having worn the outfit, the “look” wasn’t right, or having copied the software, the CD was “defective,” that’s not really your problem. A perspiration stain on a returned garment doesn’t mean it’s inferior, it means the purchaser is trying to pull a fast one.

Trained and empowered personnel should have the judgment-at the front line and point of sale-to make determinations about whether someone is a wronged customer or is just wrong-headed. They will also know whether a refund, a credit, or a refusal is appropriate. The savings in preventing management and owner’s time from being involved is enormous.

The signs of a poor customer and a bad apple are:

  • Belligerent behavior: yelling, accusations, threats
  • Lack of proof of purchase with merchandise that may not be yours
  • Apparently perfect merchandise returned for suspicious reasons
  • A history of complaints and criticism
  • Unreasonable demands and calls for immediate action

There are some wonderfully effective ways to deal with bullying customers. First, defuse the situation by acknowledging their complaint. “I see you are upset, and I’d like to listen to why that is and what has created the problem in your view.” Second, focus on fact, not emotion or supposition, and don’t concede anything that’s non-factual. “You bought this carpet with the intention of installing it yourself, but are saying that it was stained (not: “we sold you a stained item”) when you opened it completely, is that correct?” Third, refute any claims with facts of your own that apply. “Are you aware that it’s our policy to completely unfold these carpets prior to purchase in the customer’s presence, and that we can question the clerk who sold it to you about that? Do you recall such a demonstration at the time of your purchase?” Fourth, place the onus for solution on the customer: “What, exactly, would make you happy at this point?” Finally, decide on your appropriate course of action. For a long-time customer, you might issue a refund; for someone you have never sold to before, you might issue a store credit; for someone who is nasty and threatening, you might decide to reject the claim.

The importance of the sequence is to first calm the customers down as much as possible, and get them out of your traffic flow. Second, take the time to review their case objectively and determine its validity. Third, make a reasoned judgment about your action, given prudent business considerations.

Adopt these policies:

  1. Certain people who are trained and empowered, and who have good judgement, are permitted to resolve these complaints on the spot.
  2. Your people have a latitude of action, based on the history of the customer, the details of the claim, and your reasonable conclusions.
  3. If possible, it’s a policy to try to mollify the complaining customer, but not at the sake of compromising profits, principle, or prudence.
  4. You resolve to lose some bad business rather than jeopardize your good business by accommodating unreasonable behavior and claims.

The customer is always right except when the customer is wrong. It makes no sense to imperil your livelihood over an empty bromide.