I recently had to return a few products bought online, including a pair of glasses for me, and some clothes intended for a family member who showed no interest in ever wearing them.
I was surprised how easy some retailers made my returns. They generated labels and paid for shipping. Some even supplied return packaging. Their motivation seemed clear: make returns seamless, even if they’re costly and annoying. If you can create value for your customers even when they’re being a pain, you’ll establish a clear competitive advantage.
Does your business have a plan for managing problem clients? If not, pick up a copy of Dealing with Difficult Customers: How to Turn Demanding, Dissatisfied, and Disagreeable Clients into Your Best Customers. It’s a new book by two Canadian sales and marketing consultants, Noah Fleming and Shawn Veltman, who want to help your company redeem its most overlooked asset: painful prospects and bothersome buyers.
If you can learn how to respond to these people – knowing when to hug them and when to vote them off the island – you’ll be creating a sustainable competitive advantage of your own.
Fleming and Veltman offer different levels of solutions for dealing with difficult clients, including understanding why customers are so quick to be critical (it comes from our innate tendency to divide other people into “us and them”; when unhappy, people place you in the “enemy” camp); tactics for changing your own mindset and identifying customer-service fixes you can make right now; and strategies to standardize your responses to difficult customers so as to create clear paths to winning them over or writing them off.
The authors include three practical, fun approaches to understanding how difficult customers are born. “Hierarchy of Horrors” is a program in which FedEx executives met to identify the eight worst things they could do to upset customers, such as missing a pickup or losing a package. Then they tracked operations to see how often each mistake occurred. Starting with the most painful problem first, they spent a month identifying the underlying causes and taking steps to fix them.
“FedEx realized very early on that most of their unpleasant customer interactions were things totally within their control to improve, fix or even eliminate,” the authors note. The process gave them “a simple, easy-to-follow roadmap of the areas they needed to improve on.”
The second approach is called Bizarro World, based on the zany comic-book planet where people do everything the opposite of Earthlings. You just ask your team to pretend their goal is to create unhappy customers. What would drive them crazy: High prices? High expectations? Inconsistent service? A vague mission statement? “Let’s make sure that we learn the lessons of the Bizarro World companies,” the authors say, “and put sane practices and policies into place.”
Companies often create cultures quite distinct from those of their customers. Fleming and Veltman found a vivid way to close that gap: The Walter White Workshop (named after the science-teacher-turned-drug-lord on Breaking Bad). In this exercise, you ask team members to write a brief description of their favourite TV character. The result is usually a series of fun, highly detailed profiles of beloved icons.
Then you ask the team to write a similar profile of their ideal customer. It quickly becomes apparent, the authors say, that it’s “far more difficult to describe our current and prospective customers than to describe a fictional TV character.” Most companies assume they already understand their customers; an exercise like this indicates you know them on only the most superficial levels. This shock treatment makes teams more eager to learn what customers really want – and how to make things easier for them.
The authors’ key recommendation is to set up a system of “scripts.” You identify the most common areas of customer dissatisfaction, then prepare detailed scenarios so all employees know the right way to respond to every conceivable customer problem. This system seems to me too formal and comprehensive for most SMEs. But it certainly offers a way to address the difficult customers issue once and for all.
Here’s a simpler approach you may find more doable. When you encounter troublesome customers, the authors recommend a three-step process to be mastered and executed by the organization to “renegotiate the terms of your relationship.”
— Identify a behaviour that is causing friction with customers
— Identify what would have to change in order to make you want to continue serving that customer
— Communicate the required changes to the customer, and enforce the terms of the new relationship.
If a customer initiates too many costly returns, for example, this process might encourage you to “fire” them. Gut reaction tells you this will impact sales volumes – but sober analysis may reveal your profits will rise.
The authors conclude by offering a handy “universal law” to help your whole team know how to handle any customer interaction: “Do everything within your power to make the current customer feel special.” Empower your people to act spontaneously, creatively and memorably. Customers find it hard to be difficult when you behave as though they matter.
• Rick Spence is a writer, consultant and speaker specializing in entrepreneurship.