December 1, 2010

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How Can I Help You?

Managing the Problems of Customer Service

Heather L. King

December 1, 2010

Good customer service is the lifeblood of any successful business. Whether providing products or services, maintaining relationships with current customers and building an ever-growing client base is nearly every business owner’s top priority. But what happens when problems arise and customers become angry? How can entrepreneurs repair the damage and learn from those mistakes?

When problems occur, regardless of who is at fault, there are a few rules that can usually lead to a successful outcome on all sides. First, acknowledge the issue and ask questions to make sure all parties have a clear understanding of the problem (i.e. were deadlines not met, is the item not as promised, etc.). Then, be responsive but also calm.

Keri Hammond, co-founder of Marketlink, a marketing and public relations guidance consultant to professional service firms, explains, “Part of our ‘service as a product’ mantra is to always provide options for solutions during conflict. When a problem arises, every move you make says something about you and your business. Just make sure that your decisions and communication are solution-oriented and not defensive. Don’t respond if it doesn’t contribute to the solution, otherwise you’re likely to just complicate the situation and client relationship.”

Once the problem is clear and all parties are calm, develop and agree on a solution and then make a timeline for completion and stick to it. “Be strategic in calling attention to other possible benefits this ‘new’ solution may have for the client/customer,” counsels Hammond. “Once you’ve satisfied the client with regard to this situation, you’ll have earned another opportunity to serve their needs in the future and the needs of those they’ll tell about how well you handled it.”

For Kyong An Millar, owner of Koo De Ker, a boutique offering the latest women’s fashions in the 9th and 9th shopping district, it’s important that she be personally made aware of customers’ concerns so that she can help resolve them. “One thing I always tell my employees is, ‘You can’t control the amount of people that come into the shop, but what you can control is their experience.’ If the client isn’t happy, I take it upon myself to discuss the situation with them.”

That personal interaction on the part of the business owner will eventually lead to a relationship built on trust, and that is key to maintaining and repairing relationships, explains Hammond. “Every client/customer wants to know that they are your top priority. Attentiveness to the client is also a good early warning system of problems that may arise.”

One thing entrepreneurs should keep in mind is that some customers aren’t worth having or keeping. If you regularly dread your next appointment with a client, you’ve been asked to lie for them, they are abusive or can’t meet deadlines, it is safe to assume that conflicts will be an ongoing aspect of your relationship.

“No matter how great your client service processes are or how effectively you handle deadlines and budgets, you are never going to meet the expectations of some people,” says Hammond. “Firing a client is an uncommon step, but if they are causing you and your business undue hardship or loss, it is probably time to say goodbye.”

Other times, customers don’t even realize that they are being difficult, says Millar. “We had a client that continued to come in with product, either to return or exchange. Finally I just asked her if she was unhappy with everything she buys here because she’s continually returning everything. I wanted her to realize I had noticed what was going on. Once I confronted her, it seemed to make her realize what a difficult situation she was putting us in.”

Ultimately, your personal relationships with your customers will determine the outcome of even the worst situation. Hammond explains, “Don’t ever forget that your clients are your partners and in a sense, you need each other. Try never to burn bridges with them, especially if you feel that you can turn the situation around in a positive way.”

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