The best part of running a small business is interacting with all different types of people. And the worst part? Well, sometimes it’s the people.
While a difficult customer can make you cringe, you don’t have to let them ruin your day or the atmosphere of your business. Here are a few tips for managing cranky, hard-to-please customers.
1. Remember that the issue isn’t usually about you.
Were you out of a certain product and a customer lost their cool? It’s probably not really about you. Yes, you were out of the item, and that’s unfortunate. But you’re not responsible for the customer being upset and angry. Maybe the customer had a hard morning. Maybe they have personal issues. You may never really know what’s going on behind the scenes in someone’s life.
Keeping in mind that you aren’t the source of their negative emotions can help you respond calmly. Like your mom used to say: you only have control over your own actions.
2. Respond calmly.
If a person is visibly upset, it can be very difficult to respond calmly. Especially if the customer begins hurling insults that feel personal (“your shop never has the stock I need!”), it is very difficult to respond calmly. But the more elevated the emotions, the more important a calm response is.
Take a deep breath. If the incident is an email or social media reply, take a few extra minutes (or an hour) to respond. If the person is in your shop, begin by breathing and repeating back what you’ve heard. This is called active listening. Try something like, “We are out of that particular product and I can tell that’s very frustrating”. This repetition not only makes the customer feel heard, but also gives you a little more time to think about framing a calm reply.
3. Avoid committing to action.
When you have a customer in front of you who is upset, your first instinct may be to make a promise to fix it. And that would make the customer happy.
But what if you can’t come through on that hastily-made promise? Then the customer will be doubly disappointed and your reputation can suffer.
Instead of feeling compelled to come up with an immediate response, empathize and formulate a reply that is both non-committal as to the nature of the fix, but confirms that the situation will be followed up on. For example, “I sincerely apologize that we were out of that product. I’m going to look into what I can do for you and call you later this week.”
This approach gives you the time to come up with a solution that you can deliver on. Note that the solution may not be what the customer wants. Perhaps you can offer 5% off of their next order, but you can’t do anything about making the product delivery happen sooner than next week. When you call with your solution, chances are the customer’s emotions will have de-escalated so that your not-quite-perfect fix is better received than it would have been in person.
4. Follow-through without exception.
When a customer has a negative experience, they go on your mental ‘first priority’ list. The last thing you want is for that customer to have another negative experience!
Follow up on your promised phone call and deliver on the solution that you offered.
Most customers will forgive an unfortunate occurrence. But multiple incidents begin to look like an institutional issue that reflects poorly on your business.
5. Know that some customers may leave. And you may encourage it.
To this point, we have been talking about a customer who is cranky over a single unfortunate incident. However, we all have experience with ‘problem customers’. The person who is perpetually grumpy. Or is never satisfied with your stock. Or for whom the order never seems to come fast enough.
It’s up to you to decide whether you want to continue to cater to a chronically difficult customer. If you do, the person will likely continue to be difficult and cause you stress. If you don’t, they may leave and also bad-mouth your business. There is no clear-cut answer, and the decision is always difficult.
If you decide that a customer relationship isn’t worth salvaging, it’s best to avoid any finger-pointing or detailed analysis. The classic, ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ approach can work well with these customers, as in: “I understand that you would like to have 100 color options available. I’m sorry, but we just aren’t able to offer that, perhaps there is another shop nearby that can.”
Do not get roped into a conversation about why your shop can’t offer what they want. Or how you could change things so that you could offer what they want. Once you’ve made the decision to no longer cater to a difficult customer, the conversation is about setting a firm line on how far you’re willing to go and sticking to it.
A difficult customer interaction can be emotional and hard to manage, but if you remain calm and keep your focus on doing the best you can to remedy the situation (knowing that ultimately, you aren’t responsible for anyone else’s happiness!), you can significantly reduce the personal impact of a cranky customer on your stress levels.
It is also important to regularly monitor your digital presence and respond to complaints/issues just as carefully as you would in person. What if someone posts a negative review of your business on Yelp, but you don’t reply? That doesn’t look great, does it? And increasingly, customers are using social media as a method of reaching out for help, so it’s important to reply to messages and tags regarding your business.
Keeping your customers happy is incredibly important in a small business, because word of mouth (positively or negatively) is very powerful. Your happy customers will tell others, who may become your new customers. Likewise, your unhappy customers will tell others, who will then (rightly or wrongly) avoid frequenting your business.
With customer service as your focus and these new strategies in your pocket for helping to manage your difficult customers, you’ll not only feel less stressed, but have a more successful business as a result!
Stacey Trock began her career as the entrepreneur and social media maven who founded FreshStitches, amassing a facebook following of more than a half-million fans and running one of the largest subscription clubs in the fiber world. In 2015, she began using her skills to help other small- and medium-sized businesses be even more awesome. She has taught business classes at TNNA and on Creative Live. Her articles on the yarn industry have appeared in Yarn Market News and Craft Industry Alliance.