Customer Service Lessons From the Trenches
by Martien Eerhart

Martien Eerhart is a prolific author on sales, marketing, business development, customer service and applied common sense. We have compiled several of his insightful bulletins into this "Lessons From the Trenches" for your review. (ed.)

How to deal with explosive customers

Have you ever been in a situation where the customer was so unrealistic or so upset that no rational and logical response would satisfy that person? Here are 7 suggestions to de-escalate such a confrontation.

1. Cooperation
Here you are looking to find one area that you might have in common. For example ask, "I have an idea. Would you like to hear about it?" The main idea is to get them to agree with you on something neutral.

2. What would you like me to do about it?
Often we assume that we know what the other person wants. We think we have the power of reading the other person's mind. Why not ask them what they want. Even when you are fairly sure, it forces the other person to verbalize it, allowing you to come up with a more acceptable solution.

3. The Columbo method
Remember the detective from television who could solve any crime, because he played being dumb? People lower their defenses if you take the position of someone who does not take the world for granted. You could say, "I'm confused. Can you explain why you think/ feel that way?" or "What makes you think so?"

4. Judo method
Here you reverse the pressure - You acknowledge their position, and then turn it around, and use it. For example, you would say, I'm glad you brought that up. It is an issue that someone else also mentioned. So, let me ask you this, would you mind if I do . . ."

5. Why?
Often people have all the answers ready when you ask them a question. If you ask them why, they still have their answers ready. But if you ask why to each of their replies, they will run out of reasons and answers, allowing you to work towards a solution.

6. Manage expectations
By stating what you can and cannot do, you can start managing the customer's expectations. Don't just tell me what can't be done Tell the customer, "I cannot do such-and-such. But I can do such end-result." The mistake most people make is telling what we cannot do. It would be similar to asking someone what time it is, and they would tell me, "it is not 11 o'clock, and it is not noon either" Tell me what I can expect from you!

7. The paper clip method
Learn to agree on the small steps. There was this customer service rep who could have the most unreasonable customer in front of him. At one point he would ask for the person to hand him an item like a pen or paper clip. When the person would hand it to him, he would make a point to thank the man for the cooperation. This would happen a few times. Usually after the third time the man would cooperate, the two were able to work towards a solution or compromise.

Your nightmare customer

During a recent survey of Customer Service Reps (CSR) who deal with customers on a 1:1 basis (non telephone support), they indicated what a difficult customer looked like. The responses were combined, and classified into 4 different groups.

1. Power freaks
This customer doesn't care about solving problems. Their motto is "I'm right and you are wrong." All they care about is to prove that they are right, and the CSR is incompetent. One of the interviewed people working in a photo lab has customers, who blamed the CSR for the poor quality of an image, while it was clearly an inadequate lighting situation. This group appears to be 36% of difficult customers.

2. The Nagger
This customer just nags and nags. No matter what the solution, they feel a need to express their opinion. This group made up 17% of the headache customers.

3. I'm number One
This customer expects you to drop everything to help solve their problem. They call you three times if you are running behind on schedule. This group is 34% of the difficult customers.

4. I want to talk to your boss
This customer automatically makes you feel like a nobody by immediately asking for your supervisor. "If you can't give me what I want, then I'm sure your boss will be able to." They want to know when your boss is available, how long you have been with the company. These people were 11% of the problem customers.

The remaining 2% were more incidental and unusual situations.


When dealing with these issues, follow these 3 steps.

1. Manage expectations upfront:
Tell people who need to wait what is ahead of them. One of the postal workers tells people who are in line that it will be approximately 10 minutes for the person who just walked in. A waiter tells people "I will be with you in a moment." In a hotel, you tell a customer, "Your room is ready at 11AM."

2. Give a reason why!
Research shows that people who are told the reason why something happens (in simple terms) are far more cooperative then those who have no idea why they have a problem. One of the CSRs at a computer printer manufactory facility was talking with a disgruntled customer whose colors came out different today then 3 days ago. The CSR proceeded to talk about the weather, which upset the customer. When the customer asked when the CSR was planning to solve the printer problem, it turned out that the humidity 3 days earlier was so high, that it caused the problem. As a result, the customer could buy a dehumidifier, and solve the problem. Do you have simple answers to common problems?

3. Acknowledge their patience.
Tell them you appreciate their cooperation. If you thank someone (or pay a compliment) you open the door for more cooperation. One of the receptionists at a hotel would say, "Someone as well dressed as you is obviously successful, and important. So how can I help you solve this problem?" It was amazing how well people respond to it.

Things to avoid

1. Use of humor.
Even though this works for certain people, if you are not one of them, don't try to be funny, unless you know you get usually positive results.

2. The everyone-knows-that syndrome.
Things may be common sense to you, but not to everyone else. One of the customers in a retail store returned a pager because it is not working. When the CSR tested the equipment, it worked fine. The customer noticed how the employee first turned the pager on. The customer thought it only needed to be turned on to read the message, not to receive a message.

3. TTM
The biggest problem when dealing with customers is that some CSRs just Talk Too Much. They keep yakking and yakking, and the next thing they know, the customer is starting to ask more and more questions. When the customer reaches a point where the CSR cannot explain the questions with simple answers, the CSR is viewed as incompetent. Be aware that some people listen to you, so they can use that against you later.

Seven ways to improve customer service, without spending a dime

Small and midsize business owners were asked how they improve their customer service to increase sales. The following highlight the findings.

1. Fire your headache customer
Every business has a few problem clients. You can't please them, regardless of what you do. Cut your losses, and move on. By focusing in on your "good customers". your overall profits will increase. One Massachusetts based company found this out first hand. "We recently got in a situation where, through no fault of ours, things kept going wrong with a customer job. They mistakenly approved the wrong stock. The printer made an error. A vendor misquoted. Etc., etc., etc. It cost us several thousand dollars for taking the "What do you see as a solution" approach. After that, we figured out that we'd have to work five more years for these people to make up the difference in profit margin (and that's what matters, not gross receipts). Not a likely prospect."

Sometimes the best solution *is* to shrug your shoulders, cut your losses and move on. You may lose some sleep, but your employees won't lose their next bonus.

2. Have a "quality team meeting?"
Set aside some time to get the different members of your teams together, and brainstorm how you can improve your customer service. One of the hotels in New Hampshire started asking all employees how they could improve customer service. One of the employees noticed how they took good care of their corporate clients, and summer clients. They didn't seem to attract newly weds. So, they started beefing up their services to the market of newly weds, by providing new services to this target group. Within a year their number of newly weds almost tripled.

Get your employees together, and ask them how you can improve your overall performance (of course it also pays if you listen)

3. Make changes by listening to your customers
Anyone can ask customers what they want. Frequently it stops there, and companies don't make the next step to implement the suggestions. Victor Kiam, CEO of Remington Electric Shaver Company had an employee who had surgery. When Mr. Kiam met her after the surgery, the woman told him that she had to have her abdomen body hair removed for the surgical procedure. The nurse nicked her three times using a double-edge razor. The woman suggested that a Lady Remington would be better. Mr. Kiam told the research team, and they developed a now highly popular Lady Remington as a surgical shaver.

4. Use common sense like using the customer's name, greeting a new customer and smiling
A local Cumberland farm had two locations in a relatively small town. One of the sites had higher traffic in the store then the other store. At one point the customers seemed to shift to the other store. When the owner asked the customers why they went to the other location, it turned out that two of their employees were now working there. Since there was no major issue with distance, customers went where these two employees went. These two employees were polite, smiled when new customers walked in, and used the customer's name when they were paying by credit card.

A dry cleaning company found a client for life. The woman who worked in the store, ran the store as if she owned it. One day a customer walks in, and the woman greets the frequent customer. Next, she apologized when she asked him what his phone number was (for the receipt). She explained that since he was such a good customer, she should have known the number by heart. She assured him, it would never happen again that she had to ask for his information! This store just won a customer for life!

5. Manage expectations
During the sales process, don't promise many things, and then only deliver those things. Instead, promise a little less, and when you get the new customer, give a little more.

A local car dealership never promised the buyer of a new car that they would provide personalized attention to their customers. If you buy a car at this dealership, you would not expect to get a call after a week, and then after a month. You wouldn't expect to get a personal Christmas card or a 1-year courtesy call. This dealership tops it all by sending the customers a birthday card as well. When asking the owner if it was worth all the effort, he indicated what they found was that customers had a 83% return rate (as opposed to 47% at their next door competitor). His eyes twinkled when he mentioned that the retention rate of his sales reps was the highest in their county as well.

6. The 30-second Hi-and-Bye script.
This idea came from a business owner who got tired of all the promotional mailings and calls to draw people into his car detailing shop. He designed a marketing push that didn't cost him a dime. He had his employees call every local customer they had. The script was very simple:

"Hi, this is Joe from Joe's auto detailing. I hope your car is still shining. It was a pleasure to serve you. Have a super day, and good bye"

That was the whole script. The customer who hung up the phone had no clue what just happened, since they were never asked to buy anything. Imagine the owner's surprise when 24% of these customers returned the same month! All he did was a non-threatening and non-selling approach. Suddenly people realized that it is a good idea for a new shine for their car.

7. Use modern day technology
Numerous small business owners use technology to improve customer service.

A computer software company uses software that will read the caller-id number that comes in, and automatically pops up the customer record on the computer screen. The customer service rep who answers the phone can immediately respond to their needs.

Another business consulting company uses Wildfire, a voice activated voice mail system. Instead of "Press 1 for sales," customers would hear in a pleasant voice, "If you like to talk to Joe Doe, say YES." The customer gets a more personalized feeling, even though it is software operated.

A commercial banker gives her customers an "Universal Number." This special number can be used to (1) leave messages, (2) locate the person, (3) accept faxes, or (4) page the banker. The banker gives this *special* number, because she values the person, and wants to make every effort to respond to any questions.

The technology and services are available and affordable today for small and midsize companies. Why not use them?

Dr. Martien Eerhart can be reached by e-mail at Visit his web site: and subscribe to his regular e-mail newsletter.

Other articles by Martien Eerhart | More on Customer Service and Customer Obsession in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2001 by Martien Eerhart. All rights reserved.

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