Customer Service IS Your Business

by Mark Brimm on August 23, 2010

You already know how things look from your side of the counter. How about from theirs?

Every long-standing business owner knows what it’s like to face a complaining customer on the other side of the counter, be it physical or virtual. It doesn’t matter that you go the extra mile for all of your satisfied customers, there is always the new customer who doesn’t know you yet. To them, you’re just another company providing just another product until you’ve made good in their eyes. That’s not only the way it is, but perhaps the way it should be.

Everyone has experienced the person who is just out to get something for nothing, and is ready to do whatever it takes to do so. I’m putting aside that type of person for purposes here. I want to talk about the average customer, who just wants what they paid for, what you promised for the money. They can be difficult at times, also, and usually it’s not their intention to be difficult. So how do you deal with the customer who seems eager to prove your business to be in the wrong? Well, for starters, by going about your business with them with ample due respect. What do I mean? Let me explain…

You have a customer. That customer made a purchase early in the morning, while you were away from the shop (let’s say you’re the owner, and your tiny customer service team has already got its hands full just accounting for foreign and special orders, etc.). While you were away, a perfectly well-meaning customer has not only attempted to make a purchase of your product on your site, but has run into a snag, and didn’t even receive the product due to a problem that some customers experience. Now the problem isn’t technically your fault as a business owner, and is not due to any lax customer service on your company’s part thus far, or any real problem with your site or your order system, but still, the customer has paid for something and is sitting there empty-handed and unhappy about it.

Now, not only have they been through that experience, but they quickly took action to notify the first logical point of arbitration that they could. Now you come into the office and see this thing lying on your desk. Now, you’re not only scrambling to please a loose canon out in cyberspace, but trying also to deal with the arbiter, who takes the complaints whether or not sufficient time has elapsed. My recommendation at this point is to just STOP. Breathe. Think. See this as an opportunity to grow as a business owner or business manager.

It may sound counterintuitive, but it is precisely when your business is tested that it stands to improve the most. When being put under close scrutiny, that is the time to shine. So in the case of the demanding, complaining customer, realize that this person could be (and in fact, often is) yourself in just such a situation. Take the time to envision how the customer came to get to this point. See things from their perspective. And now do what you alone can do as the company: make things go right for your customer in a way so that if nothing had gone wrong, the customer would never have had the opportunity to see the quality of your company in action.

A few things to keep in mind when dealing with a complaining customer:

1) Right or wrong, treat them with the utmost respect and understanding. Avoid sarcasm or implying error. Let the customer discover the error for themselves.
2) Make right their issue, or at least show them how they may have misread the process, and take responsibility for the fact that it mishap occurred in the first place.
3) Ask them to let you know if they experience any further issues with the product or service. Why stop the learning process at resolving the first issue. Milk the revelation source for all it is willing to give. This kind of information is a gift to your company that most bigger companies pay to discover via surveys. Accept feedback when it gives itself.
4) Once their issue is fully resolved and closed, make a case study out of the issue for the good of customer service function.
5) Use the lessons learned to make sure that THAT issue is never repeated.
6) After the situation is resolved amicably, thank the customer for their business. This says, “we don’t care who’s right, we prefer that our customers are satisfied.”

This last item may not be the first thing on your mind after having just been accused of not doing right if you were not actually in the wrong. Perhaps the arbiter makes things complicated, as well. That can really add to the stress of a difficult day. However, if you can keep your cool and lose the ego during a difference with a customer, this is the most favorable time to learn where the weaknesses in your system actually are, and to correct them, thereby increasing the efficiency of your business and establishing your values with at least one (demonstably vocal) customer.

In the end, customer service IS your business, in every way. Anyone can promise, sell, make, and deliver a product. It takes something more to actually satisfy the customer. This is the essence of how customer service bridges the gap between just another company, and a highly esteemed one with real supporters.

Photo Credit

Mark BrimmMark Brimm is Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Marcana.com and is author of AdWords University: The Complete Guide to AdWords and other previous related books on search marketing. He is currently working on a forthcoming book on social media strategy.

Mark consults on SEO & SEM, general web marketing and social media at Interface Communications Group where he is Partner and Director of Digital Marketing. Some of his specialties include SEO (search engine optimization), social media optimization (SMO), as well as PR campaign concepts, marketing plans and general web marketing related project management.

  • http://twitter.com/wreichard Will

    Too true! Business is fundamentally a social interaction, and if you don’t like customers you’re probably better off doing something else. Especially in today’s hypercompetitive environment–people just have too many choices for businesses to risk giving them any reason to switch.

    It always seems to come back to the golden rule–how would you want to be treated in that situation? Not always easy to remember, but it’s what makes the greats great.

    Thanks for bringing it to the forefront, Mark–it’s one of Tue pieces that’s commonly overlooked these days. (facebook customer service horror stories, anyone?)

  • http://www.marcana.com Mark Brimm

    Thanks, Will. I feel strongly about this. Complaints are the best way for ay growing business to really grow. That’s the time to see what is there and make real improvements, no matter who’s really at fault. The problem is really that someone had a problem.

  • http://twitter.com/MarlitaH Marlita H

    This is a really nice post, Mark. I have been on both ends of this situation. As a customer, I have had wonderful customer service from places that get a really bad rap from others – AT&T, Comcast, Blue Cross. I would like to point out here that part of that is I try not to blow up at the customer service reps because they are rarely the cause of the problem. I know I usually tend toward “evil corporation” comments but this is really the crux of the matter. As will points out in his comment, “It always seems to come back to the golden rule”.

    From a service industry perspective, I have had to calm down annoyed customers for years. Many times, I can’t actually do anything to right the situation but what has gotten me really far has been my ability to walk in that person’s shoes. Sometimes, being understanding of the customer’s perspective is the important thing. Of course, you should try to “fix the problem” but even if you do that, if your attitude is bad, that person is going to walk away feeling mistreated.

    Thanks for teaching people to be kind to one another :-)

  • http://www.marcana.com Mark Brimm

    I’ve quoted the golden rule many times, so yes I agree wholehearted about that.

    I also served in a customer service capacity for three years for a major corporation during my college years. I listened to every type of complaint imaginable and realized that there are many, many sides of the same coin. I often found myself arguing the customer’s case to a supervisor or the department manager. A few times, I made the case successfully. When I didn’t win on their behalf, I realized that it was better to take the complaint seriously every time then to ever assume that this is just another case of blah-blah-blah (translation: I know you don’t have any legit reason for being upset at my awesome employer).

    I really appreciate your authentic response to this article.

  • http://www.more-for-small-business.com Kris

    Good strategies. I’d also add that it’s a good idea to let your customer vent (as in talk themselves off the ledge) if they are really upset – there is no point talking to them if they can’t listen through their frustration/anger.

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  • http://www.marcana.com Mark Brimm

    Thanks for the feedback, Kris. Caring about your customer may sound corny, but they really feel when you don’t, so as you noted, it makes a big difference to be heard and felt.

  • http://twitter.com/dianadriscoll Diana Driscoll

    How true is THIS, Mark?! Most people with a complaint want to be heard and believe that you understand and empathize with them. I’ve always found it to be effective to look in the customer’s eyes, listen and the first words that come out of my mouth (although not always what I am thinking!) is “I am so sorry. Let’s see what we can do to make this right.” Many times, that’s all it takes. Also, the VERY worst thing you can do is follow the ‘run and hide’ instinct and avoid calling them back or getting in touch with them. As Nike says, “Just Do It” — and do it as quickly as you can before the their heat starts to boil.

  • http://www.marcana.com Mark Brimm

    Thanks Diana,

    We are one on this issue. Agreed! Hiding or procrastinating is a big mistake.

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  • http://www.howard-marketing.com/marketingblog Steven Howard

    Excellent points Mark. What many people don’t understand is that rectifying a customer’s problems and full satisfying them by doing so makes them more loyal. This is not to suggest that we create problems for customers in the first place and then fix them. But the fact is that any correction or fix requires personal attention, and thus the satisfied customer becomes more loyal.

    Also, less than 50% of customers complain, which means most organizations only hear about half the problems their customers have. Imagine what would happen to customer retention if an organization heard about the other 50% of problems and managed to fix these personally and satisfactorily. Customer attrition rates would definitely start to fall.

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