While studying for my management degree in college, I took a class called “relationship selling” which taught me that the true value of a customer is in his loyalty to a company. A customer’s trust in the service potentially adds profit to a business for years. I found the lessons of good customer service to be so valuable to a business, that I wondered why more managers aren’t spending more time training their front-line employees to focus on developing a relationship with their customers. I’ve worked in retail, food, and nonprofit industries, yet I never received formal training from my employers in how to turn complaints into opportunities; how to listen to the customer to focus a sale; or simply how to empathize with customers.
The Customer is Insulted
I have been a customer with complaints, yet in some situations, the employee doesn’t fully hear me. I feel the situation is often escalated, because the employee doesn’t see me as someone who has taken a risk by choosing their employer’s business. I often hear stories of poor customer service situations that I feel could have easily been avoided with the understanding that a customer is a long-term investment.
In December of 2012, ABC News covered a story of three women who were shocked to see that their waiter had described them as “fat girls” on their ticket. Had the restaurant used table numbers, the complaint would have never become a viral news story in social media. What raised my blood temperature wasn’t so much that the manager initially responded to their complaint with a tepid reaction. My blood began a rolling boil when I read the comments to the news article.
The Customer is Usually Wrong.
I concede that these women appeared to be overweight; however, having been remotely aware of the sensitivity surrounding the topic of weight, I would never be so bold as to describe someone as “fat.” A shocking number of people who left comments on the article felt that the waiter was justified in describing the women as fat, because “they’re fat, aren’t they?” Why, yes, but true as a description may be, I wouldn’t describe a customer by her level of obesity, especially if my hourly pay depended on that customer leaving me a tip.
Some people suggested that it is common practice for restaurant workers to criticize their patrons. I left a comment suggesting that, while the women may be overweight, it is not in the best interest of the servers to criticize their customers. In response to my comment, a user scolded me for my ignorance, suggesting I had never worked in the food service industry or I would have known that it was common practice for restaurant employees to secretly criticize patrons. The gist of the reader reaction was that these women should not have felt insulted and that it was their fault for being fat in the first place.
Customer Service Builds Relationships
Someone who brings a business a $15 profit is not just worth $15. That customer is a potential income stream. That person may pour his $15 into that business twice a week if he feels the service and products are worth his money. That person is worth $1,560 annually and much more over a lifetime, especially if he loves to talk about his favorite businesses with friends. The Harvard Business School offers an online calculator for businesses to calculate the lifetime value of a customer.
A frustrated or demanding customer presents an opportunity for an employee to gain the trust of the customer, yet some employees feel insulted by the demands and complaints of their customers. A customer who visits a restaurant at 8:45 pm might not realize that the place closes at 9:00 pm. I remember the grumbles from co-workers when I worked as a waitress: “Why do people decide to come at the last minute?” Often, the customers would mention, “Wow, it’s like we have the place to ourselves. What time do you close?” That moment marks the beginning of a new relationship. The customer then realizes that though the staff was preparing to close, the servers provided excellent service. The customer won’t come back at the last minute next time, but there is a great chance that there will be a next time.
Employees sometimes block the relationship from happening by assuming the customer is simply too demanding or full of complaints. Alyson Krueger of Business Insider writes that Bob Brennan, the CEO of the information management company, Iron Mountain, says “The biggest organizational challenge I’ve seen in small, medium and large companies is this issue of defensiveness.”
When the employee sees the customers as adversaries with whom they will not lose a fight, the customer simply harbors mistrust for the company. I was standing in line at a big box retail store when I heard a customer at a register behind me complain that the cashier didn’t properly discount some item. I heard the cashier groan, “Oh yeah. I’m just trying to rip you off on purpose,” in a sarcastic harrumph. I wondered if the customer got her discount or simply let it go. I’m less inclined to bite on a sales offer at that particular store, because I’m afraid that the cashier might miss something and give me a hard time if I counter her.
It is embarrassing and frustrating when a customer stomps her foot to protest the egregious mistake an employee inadvertently made, but that customer is pouring her income into a company. She does not want that act to be taken lightly. She is not angry with the employee personally, she’s angry with the company. She could be wrong, and if the employee takes the time to clarify or rectify the situation, the customer will strengthen her loyalty to that business.