Difficult customers made easy

Many of us are in roles where we regularly deal with difficult customers - school reception staff who work with upset parents, health and community workers who have clients with totally unrealistic expectations, and hospitality staff who deal with customers who are rude and demanding. 

No matter what the role, I often find that people, if they are given a choice, prefer to prevent problems occurring, rather than to deal with problem behaviour when it arises.

Here are five ways you can minimise the likelihood of difficulties occurring with your customers or clients.

  1. Give speedy attention: We all know the stereotype of reception staff engaged in meaningless gossip while we wait for their attention. But in the real world, people also get frustrated when 3 staff are working on the one task when one could be free to provide service. When people arrive at a reception desk, they expect that staff will stop what they are doing to give them attention rather than continuing in a routine task that could be finished later.

    It is also frustrating for customers when they have to go through multiple telephone options and wait 30 minutes before they get to speak with a real person. It is no wonder that many people customers become 'difficult' when they experience unnecessary delays. People who provide great customer service give speedy attention - greeting people when they arrive (or at least acknowledging their presence if they are busy) and endeavouring to answer  phone calls within 3 rings. 
  2. Make a personal connection: Customers, even when they are upset, like to deal with a real person, not someone who is simply in work-mode with their work-voice on. There is a time and place for using your work-voice. But when you are wanting to make good connections with customers, you need to be yourself as well as helpful and friendly. Use their name if you know it and let them know yours. Here it is your attitude and personability that are most important.
  3. Adjust yourself for the individual: People who excel in customer service are great at reading people and adjusting themselves to the individual before them. For someone who is upset, they give a caring, helpful response. For those with a story to tell, they give them time and attention. For those who in a hurry, they speed things along. When we adjust yourself to what others are needing will tend to get you more of the behaviour you would prefer to see.
  4. Set expectations at the right level: Some customers expect the world and then for others to deliver it to them. When you are aware of unreasonable expectations from clients, this is good, as it gives you a chance to speak about what you can and can't do. When you are not sure what people are expecting, you can ask what they were wanting (or expecting) by speaking with you. Most times, their expectations will become obvious the more you speak to them or the more you watch their behaviour. 

    There are different ways to set expectations at the right level. Simply letting people know what you can and cannot do is a good start. The sooner you can do this, the better. Others let their clients know the best way to work with them. Some workplaces do this by providing a written statement of rights and responsibilities to clients which they are required to read and sign. Some workplaces have recorded messages when people are on-hold, letting people know the wait times or what they will need to work with that agency.

    Others have signage in the waiting room. I recall one hospital emergency ward that had a sign up saying, 'Please treat us with respect. This will help us to help you'. There was another sign that said, 'By respect, we mean no shouting, no threats, and no swearing.' Must be a tough group of patients they have there! But at least they are letting their patients know the best way to work with them.

    Of course, when clients have reasonable expectations of your workplace, you need to deliver. If you say you will get back to someone on the same day, then make sure you do so. A good rule-of-thumb is to under-promise and over-deliver. If you think it will be 2 hours before you can get back to a customer, then tell them it will be at least four hours. That way, if you are slightly delayed, it won't matter. But if you get back to them earlier than what you have said, they will feel good about this. If you can't meet the reasonable expectations of your customers, at least provide an explanation and an apology.
  5. Be willing to go the extra mile: It is hard for customers to stay upset at someone who is genuinely trying to help them, who is going above and beyond what would usually occur. I see people going the extra mile when they offer to look into a matter and respond the same day, when they show flexibility with the usual procedures, or when a replacement part is given outside of warranty at no additional cost.

I remember an occasion when I could easily have become a difficult customer. My wife, young sons and I were flying to Sydney. We arrived at our local Virgin Airlines counter with our children, luggage and child safety seats. The staff said they could transport the child safety seats, but they could not be held liable for any damage caused to them in transit. We agreed to fly the seats at our own risk and duly signed the required disclaimer. 

 When we arrived in Sydney, we were called to the Virgin Service Counter and were dismayed that one of the seats had been snapped in half. Before we had a chance to get upset, the counter staff were quick to empathise and apologise. They also offered to reimburse us in full for a replacement seat and offered us a loan seat until we had a chance to purchase a replacement.

Although disappointed about the breakage, their personal response and offer, which went above and beyond our expectations, certainly stopped us from becoming upset and disappointed. Instead of complaining to our friends, we have become loyal fans.

 Providing great service does not eliminate the likelihood of dealing with rude, demanding and aggressive customers, However, it does greatly reduce any contribution our workplace may be making to people's frustration.

We all love great service. What can you and your workplace do to improve customer service and minimise the likelihood of difficulties occurring?

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