The customer is always right — great advice or one of the worst statements to ever exist?
I tend to lean toward the latter option because, quite frankly, there are just times when a customer is flat-out wrong. And not only wrong, but sometimes obstinate, outrageous, and downright verbally abusive. But of course you can’t exactly dismiss a customer every time you think they’re wrong — that’s just a recipe for business disaster.
That’s why I’ve created the top 10 tips for navigating this sticky situation without losing face or damaging your business’s reputation.
It’s OK to admit that difficult customers exist.
I firmly believe that the saying, “The customer is always right” is probably one of the worst conventions of the 20th century. Sure, it’s important to provide your customers with a good experience, and you should always try to make an upset customer happy but seriously? Always right?
Some customers will be irrational, outrageous, and sometimes downright abusive. In these cases, the customer is 100% in the wrong, and it’s OK to admit that. Don’t force your business or your employees to ascribe to this outdated and, quite frankly, unproductive way of thinking.
Frame it in terms of “miscommunication.”
The term “miscommunication” is actually pretty potent here, because it doesn’t imply blame on either side. In other words, you’re not taking the blame for the problem, and you’re not blaming the customer for the problem. It’s probably one of the best words to use to diffuse an upset customer, usually in the following way: “It sounds like a miscommunication occurred, so let’s solve this right away.”
Use this step only if you’re 100% not to blame for the problem that the customer is laying at your doorstep. Otherwise, if you did something wrong and the customer is calling you out, you need to own it.
Work on changing their perspective.
If the customer is wrong, it’s sometimes tempting to explain to them why they’re wrong, in an effort to persuade them to see your side of things. I can tell you point-blank, that just won’t work; no customer (especially if they’re angry) wants to be told they’re wrong.
A more subtle way to tell them they’re wrong is to work on changing their perspective from the get-go. Listen to your customer, acknowledge what they’re saying, then respond with something along these lines: “I think we understand what happened here; let’s get this resolved.”
It’s similar to the second step in that you’re getting the customer to stop thinking about the problem; it’s especially effective if you’re dealing with someone who is less than pleasant.
Offer a different solution that works for you.
One of the fastest ways to get an upset customer back on your side is to offer another solution. Here’s the trick, though: Make sure it’s a solution that works for you too. Don’t give a customer a solution that would be inconvenient for you or one that you really don’t want to give in the first place.
Here’s an example of how this would look in action: “Sir, I understand you’re upset about this situation, and I’m so sorry about what happened. I can either refund your money or provide you with a store credit. Which option works best for you?”
As you can see in the above example, the solutions are limited to what works for your business, but you’re still convincing the customer that they’re in control.
If you have a customer who keeps calling or emailing you — and they’re getting more and more aggressive — it’s a good idea to minimize communications. That doesn’t mean limit them; it simply means that you should respond in short, polite sentences.
I’ll expound on this more in a different section, but if you add huge explanations or display emotional reactions to your communications, you’re only going to make the customer more upset. Upset customers — even when they’re being jerks — don’t want explanations or long diatribes about your feelings— they want viable solutions.
And if they just want to email you to yell at you? Then short communications in a neutral tone should help diffuse the situation, or at the very least, show that you’re in control of both your business and your emotions.
Admit it if you could have done better, but then move on.
I spoke to this in the second step, but it’s so important for you to admit to anything you could have done better. If a customer is upset or irate with you, it’s tempting to drop their business immediately and move on to the next person, but don’t! You may be able to salvage the relationship by owning up to the fact that you dropped the ball.
Here’s an example of what that might look like: “You’re right, I missed your project deadline and that impacted your business. I’m so sorry for my mistake, and it won’t happen again. Let me make this better for you.”
After you’ve owned up to the mistake, immediately offer a solution that can help alleviate the issue so your customer doesn’t stay stuck on the problem.
Avoid emotional reactions.
It’s pretty infuriating when you’re facing down a customer who not only is wrong but is, quite frankly, being a jerk about it. So it’s understandable that you want to shout or get assertive with someone who is getting in your face like that.
But whatever you do, avoid giving in to reacting emotionally. As soon as you have that kind of reaction, you’ve automatically lost face.
Rely on facts, not feelings.
As soon as you bring feelings into the fight, you’ve lost the battle. As tempting as it is to demonstrate that you’re angry or frustrated with the customer, remain neutral and stick to the facts. Basically, sticking to facts helps you keep the high ground on a customer who’s in the wrong without actually telling them they’re wrong.
Protect your employees.
When you stick to the motto “The customer is always right,” you’re actually setting your employees up for failure. Sometimes the customer can be outrageously wrong, and if you insist that your employees always do what the customer wants, you’re potentially exposing them to abusive behaviors.
Plus, no one wants to work for a supervisor who makes them put up with difficult or abusive clients. Protect your employees and keep them around for longer by letting them know they can shut down a customer if things get out of hand.
Speaking of which …
If things escalate, ban the customer.
If you have a customer who is making racist, sexist, threatening, or otherwise unacceptable remarks, or has put their hands on one of your employees, you have every right to ban the customer from your store. Don’t be afraid to call the police, either, especially if the customer has resorted to threats or violence.
Bottom line: the customer isn’t always right; don’t feel like you have to pretend otherwise!
I love writing about the small business experience because I happen to be a small business owner - I've had a freelance copywriting business for over 10 years. In addition to that, I also head up the content strategy here at Simply Business. Reach out if you have a great idea for an article or just want to say hi!
Mariah writes on a number of topics such as small business planning, contractor insurance, and business licenses.
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