If you're offering customer satisfaction surveys this year, brace yourself.
This era of shutdowns, reduced capacities, social distancing, mask rules and societal upheaval doesn't lend itself to the best customer experiences. It seems like not a day goes by lately without some new viral video of an angered, mask-less customer being denied service or, in extreme cases, violent in-store encounters.
While the anti-consumer nature of the pandemic and government mandates are out of most business owners' hands, it remains our responsibility to please our clientele and manage their expectations with tact. Failure to do so at such a time can be devastating.
Consider the results of a recent survey: 40% of respondents said they will shop online more than in-store in the future, meaning the ever-present threat to brick-and-mortar retail stores is only going to be exacerbated by the pandemic. Restaurants, too, could be significantly impacted, as 38% of respondents said they will rely on food delivery services and takeout more often than they did previously. For these reasons and many more, customer experience and satisfaction are more important than ever.
Anytime we discuss issues such as this, the phrase "the customer is always right" springs to mind. But what about during COVID-19, when anger over a mandatory mask is misdirected at you or an employee? Even in normal times, what if the customer is most definitely wrong? It happens all the time, and that's why I prefer to say, "The customer is No. 1." Without them, businesses are nothing, so when one has a complaint, rightly or wrongly, it must be taken seriously.
Fortunately, pandemic or not, there is a relatively simple, four-step process for dealing with customer complaints, known by the mnemonic device LARK (Listen, Apologize, Resolve, and Keep the promise). Follow this guide, and you should be able to handle even the touchiest of patrons.
A scenario: You walk onto the floor, and a customer is mad.
Maybe a meal didn't meet their standards, they weren't able to return an article of clothing, or the fine print on a coupon means they won't be getting the discount they expected. It doesn't matter what their complaint is – you need to hear them out.
We've all gotten a product or service that doesn't meet our expectations. You know how you want to be treated and that you want someone listen to you – and you know the golden rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated.
If a customer has a complaint, let them air it without interruption – all of it, be it 30 seconds or four minutes. As long as they're not being profane or disturbing other customers, this is often all a customer wants: to voice their issue and have it heard by someone in a management position. There's something therapeutic in simply being heard – or maybe it's only the first part of what the customer wants.
You probably won't get through a confrontation with a customer without delivering an apology. Again, this can be frustrating when you know you or your employees have done nothing wrong, but the customer is No. 1.
Apologies need to be sincere. We've all heard plenty of halfhearted attempts at saying sorry. They typically feel practiced, are filled with corporate speak, simply offer a free gift or contain a defense of the apologizer's actions. Apologies that include some version of the phrase "if I offended anyone" likely won’t be as warmly received. If you're apologizing, someone was already offended.
The best apologies, first and foremost, recognize the feelings of the offended party. Acknowledge what they must be feeling and sympathize with them ("if I were you, I'd feel the same way").
If it sounds like you're playing the part of a psychologist, it's only because you're not a mind-reader. You don't know what kind of day someone is having. Maybe there's a good reason they're in a bad mood. The best thing you can do if they're acting out in your place of business is soothe their feelings and de-escalate the situation. An apology goes a long way toward that.
You could call this step "Apology Part 2."
Saying sorry isn't enough for many customers, and that's understandable. If they've had an upsetting experience, they don't want to be paid lip service. They want to see a problem resolved.
If it's a mistake by an employee, let the customer know you'll speak with the staffer and take appropriate action. If it's an unexpected situation, you might say it will be a learning experience and change a procedure. Maybe you'll need to replace a piece of equipment.
Keep the promise
Equally important to the solution is the follow-through, or keeping the promise. Whatever you promise a customer, it has to happen in relatively short order. Plenty of customers will do their own follow-through, and if they see that an issue they experienced is still present, you could be in store for more than a complaint. Negative viral social media posts have spawned from far less.
At the end of the day, there is no perfect way to apologize and make up for it. Many business owners offer a gift in the form of a free meal, product, service or certificate to make up for a mistake or bad experience. New research suggests that the most successful gifts actually hurt the giver, though, and that's tough to swallow for business owners. Especially at a time like this, you may not be able to afford handouts, and even if your business is truly at fault, you need to hang on to your dignity.
No act of contrition actually solves a problem, though. A tangible change to your business that fulfills a promise is a better way to say sorry than anything else.
Bonus tip: Don't take it personally
A key to making sure a customer complaint doesn't rise to the level of confrontation is a calm demeanor and clear head. Of course, the person with the complaint may not have those traits in the moment. Regardless, be it an employee, manager or owner at the receiving end of a customer's angry rant, they can't take it personally.
Again, it's impossible to know just what is going through another person's head. Their outsized reaction to a situation may not even be related to what happened. Maybe they just quit smoking and you were the first unlucky person they met.
Getting emotional or too defensive in a situation that doesn't warrant that kind of reaction only escalates the matter. Controlling your emotions, listening to the customer, apologizing sincerely, offering a solution and following through on it is the best you can do.
Ironically, handling a situation like this may even draw an apology from the customer after they calm down or see you treating them with the respect they may not have been showing to you. In fact, I've found if you can please tough customers, they tend to be the type of people who will tell 10 other people how much they appreciate your service (and if those people know how picky their friend is, they might just become customers themselves).
No matter who walks in the door, whatever their demeanor is, and even if the situation ends poorly – that customer is No. 1.