Natural Foods Merchandiser

What to do when the customer isn't right

Customer service is a notoriously difficult part of running a business, but it's also one of the most important. According to a 2004 National Retail Federation survey, 99 percent of shoppers say customer service is at least somewhat important when deciding whether to make a purchase. Furthermore, 70 percent say they would tell, on average, at least three other people about a negative shopping experience. Conversely, 73 percent of shoppers say they would tell an average of 2.4 people about a positive shopping experience.

It's clear that interacting with shoppers in a positive manner will benefit your business, but it's not always that simple. Inevitably, you will encounter a difficult customer—one who complains constantly, expects special treatment, takes advantage of the store's already liberal return policy, loiters every day without showering—these are the joys of working in the retail industry. But to make your business as strong as possible, you have to be ready to relate to these types of customers in a way that will not negatively impact your store, and there are ways to do this, no matter how incorrigible a customer may seem.

Recognize your weaknesses
Often, the first step in devising a smart business strategy is taking a moment to look at what could be improved about your operation. In many cases, a weak spot is customer relations. "The retailer is not always a marketing or customer service expert—in the natural foods industry, the retailer's area of expertise is health and wellness. It's tough being in business because there's so much you have to keep up with that's out of your realm of knowledge," says Debby Swoboda, founder of Stewart, Fla.-based DS Marketing Solutions. If your store is experiencing what seems to be an inordinate amount of complaints, it might be time to re-evaluate your customer service skills and your methods for dealing with grievances.

Devise a plan Even if your plan is a simple 1-2-3 set of procedures, it's important to have a store policy about what to do when a situation with a difficult customer arises. Tips to help you come up with a strategy:

  • Take me higher. Usually, upset customers will want to talk to someone in charge, and you should let them. "Customers will respond better if they're talking to an authority figure," Swoboda says. "If a higher-up is available, have the customer talk to that person. If not, instruct your employees to take a name and number and reassure the customer that they will be contacted about their complaint." If the customer is being difficult in another way—loitering, suspected shoplifting, bothering other customers and staff—it's also best to have an authority figure speak to him or her. "If it ever comes down to having to ask someone to leave, it's always best to have the boss do it," Swoboda says.
  • Mind your manners. No matter how rude or confrontational a shopper is being, "it is never right for the store [personnel] to become irate," Swoboda says. Bill Crawford, director of retail custom programs at New Hope Natural Media, who spent 12 years on the management team of a naturals chain, agrees. "Even if they anger you, you should treat them with courtesy and respect." Specifically, listen with a sympathetic ear to the customer's complaint, apologize for the incon?venience, explain, if applicable, why the store was experiencing difficulties, and describe clearly what action you are going to take to address the customer's concerns.

    Even in the case of a customer who is disturbing the peace or shoplifting, a calm, respectful manner is essential. "A lot of times, the power of suggestion is enough. We had a woman who we suspected of shoplifting, but instead of accusing her, I just politely and off-handedly mentioned how there seemed to be a lot of shoplifters in town lately, and she stopped her behavior," says Rhoda McGuire, general manager of Amelia's Garden, a natural foods store in Snowflake, Ariz.

  • Actions speak louder than words. No matter what the situation, once you have been made aware of a problem, the best course of action is exactly that—action. "There are only so many times you can say you're sorry," says John Gardner, president of Hot Springs, Ark.-based Good Earth Natural Foods. "But doing something is what really matters. Reassure the customer that you'll have the problem corrected, and then do what it takes to get that done." Once you have remedied the dilemma, following up with the customer is crucial. "The follow-up call is so important because it gives you a chance to re-establish a good rapport with the customer," Swoboda says.
  • The customer is (almost) always right. Most of the time, doing what will make the customer happy will be the best thing for your business. According to the NRF survey, "Sixty-seven percent of shoppers feel that it is extremely important for retail employees to be courteous and treat shoppers like valued customers. Sixty-nine percent of consumers said they dislike being pressured to buy merchandise, and 64 percent find it extremely important that employees are available to ask for help." Following these principles will help ensure customer loyalty at your store. "If a customer wants to return a $20 bottle of half-consumed vitamins, you have to ask yourself if it's worth it to you to lose that customer over that bottle of vitamins," Swoboda says. "In most cases, it won't be."
  • Know your limits. While it's true that customer satisfaction is key to maintaining a thriving business, there are some shoppers who will do more harm to your store than good. "If someone is causing repetitive disturbances, or is clearly trying to take advantage of the store in some way, someone has to make the call about whether keeping this person happy is in the store's best interest, or whether you can do without him. Ultimately, you have to do what's best for the store as a whole," Crawford says. Swoboda agrees. "There comes a time when you have to say, 'I guess what I have to offer this customer isn't enough,' and you let that customer go, just like you would a bad employee."

    Furthermore, if a situation escalates out of control—turns violent or frightening in any way—it might be time to call the police. "It's rare that that would happen, but the store has to draw the line of what it will accept," Swoboda says.

Put the plan into action
Once you have established your code of conduct for dealing with difficult customers, it's time to communicate that plan to the rest of your staff. Training is a central step to ensure smooth sailing in the future. "In training, role-playing is a great way for employees to act out these situations and learn how to best handle them," Swoboda says. Also, don't be shy about asking for help. Often, turning to customer service and marketing professionals can provide the impetus you need to perfect the customer service side of your business.

Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.22

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