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January 29, 2020

BY AMY CASTRO

I think I’m like most people in the pet business. We’re prepared to have a variety of interactions with difficult pets, but many of us had no idea that the most difficult part of our jobs would be dealing with difficult humans. Unfortunately, it’s our human customers who pay the bills, so figuring out ways to deal with the difficult ones is a must.

Here are some things I’ve learned in more than 25 years of customer service that will help you not only survive, but thrive in your interactions with difficult customers.

Tip 1: Agree with the customer when possible.

Think about the times you’ve complained to a service provider. What did they say in response? In most instances, it was probably an excuse or lame explanation. Think about how different the interaction would have gone if they’d just said, “You’re right,” and agreed with you about the complaint. One of the best things you can do when a customer complains is to find something in the complaint you can agree with to make the customer feel heard and validated.

Let’s say a grooming customer brings in her Bichon who hasn’t been groomed for more than eight months. You explain that you’re going to have to take the cut short and won’t be able to get the Teddy Bear Cut she wants because the dog is matted. When the customer returns to pick up her dog, she yells, “What did you do to my dog? You cut all her hair off!” Most people’s instinct is to say, “I told you I was going to have to cut it short” or “I didn’t cut it ALL off.” These responses come off as argumentative and defensive and are guaranteed to escalate the situation. Instead, validate your customer’s feeling of surprise by agreeing with her: “You’re right, it is short, and I know it’s much shorter than you’re used to.” Once you’ve agreed that the cut is short, kindly remind the customer what you told her that morning before she left your shop—just be sure not to include any sarcasm, such as saying, “As I TOLD YOU this morning…”

Tip 2: Be specific to avoid conflict.

One of the biggest sources of conflict with customers is when their expectations differ from what we think we’ve communicated. Often this occurs because of vague or unclear language. In the example above, when you told the customer the cut would be “short,” did you say specifically how short? Did you show with a ruler or by holding your fingers a quarter inch apart to show how short the dog’s coat would be? The same goes with being specific about when products will be shipped to a customer or how much your services cost. A few days might mean five to seven days to you, but could mean two or three to the customer. After day three has passed, your customer is going to be unhappy. The same goes for “inexpensive.” One person’s inexpensive could be another person’s day’s pay. Always be as specific as you can be, and you’ll create more realistic expectations for your customers.

Tip 3: Don’t take the bait.

When customers are upset, they’ll often try to push emotional buttons to try to make you feel as upset as they feel. Don’t take the bait. When a customer pushes your buttons by saying things like, “I guess I’ll just have to take my business elsewhere,” the worst thing you can say is, “That’s your choice.” However, that doesn’t mean you should beg for their business. If you do, they know that the “I’ll leave” button is one that works on you, and guess what? They’re going to start pushing it all the time. A better answer would be, “That’s totally within your right. However, I would like the opportunity to make this situation right. What would make it right for you?”

Tip 4: Avoid saying “policy.”

Customers hate hearing the word “policy” because they see policies as something businesses make up to make their lives difficult. Think about the last time someone denied you something you wanted, like a refund, and the reason they gave was, “It’s against store policy.” That’s not a reason; that’s an excuse. Instead of beating your customers over the head with your big book of policies, share with them the reason behind the policy. You probably didn’t create your policies to make your customers’ lives difficult. You likely set them up for the benefit of all customers. Therefore, tell your customers how the policy benefits them. For example, let’s say you have a policy of not accepting returns of open food, supplements or medications. The reason behind this policy is for the safety of your customers’ pets. Therefore, when your customer wants to return a half-eaten bag of food, instead of saying, “We don’t take back open food, it’s against our policy,” you’re going to say, “Ms. Watson, because we care about the safety of all our customers’ pets and ensuring the contents of the food we sell, we don’t take returns of open items. However, we can give you an account credit or you could donate it to an animal shelter or rescue.”

Tip 5: Match nonverbal communication to your message.

If you want to sound sincere and professional, it’s not enough to just say the right thing to your customers. Think about the last time you were on the receiving end of an apology from someone you know didn’t mean it. How could you tell? Probably because the person said they were sorry, but they didn’t look or sound sorry. When you’re speaking to customers, it’s critical that your nonverbal communication—your facial expressions, voice and body language—send the same message as your words. If you’re truly sorry, you need to look and sound sorry. If you say you’re happy to help, you need to look and sound happy. Having appropriate and congruent nonverbal communication is important for everyone in your business, especially those who work directly with customers.

Tip 6: Have appropriate responses to common complaints.

No matter what business you’re in, customers are going to complain. There are probably some aspects of your business that generate regular complaints. Of course, the best way to deal with common complaints is to fix the issues that cause them. However, not every issue can be fixed, so it’s important that you and your team have a “good answer” to give when you hear these complaints. For example, let’s say there’s limited parking in front of your business, and your customers often complain they had to drive around awhile to find a spot. Rather than saying, “I’m sorry, I know our parking is terrible,” offer your customers a better answer. In this case, a solution would be great to offer. “I know it’s frustrating to hunt around for a parking spot. However, if you turn the corner on Maple Street, the doughnut shop said our customers can park there in the afternoon because they’re closed.”

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