Feature Article - September 2005
Find a printable version here

A Field Guide to Patrons

Tips for keeping customers happy

You'll quickly recognize the Bully Customer by the red face, clenched fists (or pointing fingers) and high-decibel roar.

"Usually when they are the bullying kind of customer, someone along the way hasn't kept on top of things," says Louise Anderson, author of Cream of the Corp., and president of Anderson Performance Improvement, a consultant firm in Hastings, Minn. For better or for worse, it's now up to you or your employee to smooth things over. And fast.

"Deal with them as quickly as possible," advises Eileen Soisson, president of The Meeting Institute in Myrtle Beach, S.C. "They're like taking off a Band-Aid. The slower you do it, the more painful."

With these customers, keen listening skills especially come in handy.

"If someone comes to me with a raised voice, do I then raise my voice in return?" asks Karen Carnabucci, MSS, LCSW, consultant and owner of Companions in Healing in Racine, Wis. You might be tempted, but you'll only escalate the situation further if you respond defensively.

"What may seem natural or normal is often not productive or helpful," Carnabucci says.

If it seems necessary, first find a place where the customer and you can speak in private.

"The number-one thing is to pull them away from the situation," Soisson says. Then, open your ears.

"Make every effort to let the person have his or her say," Carnabucci adds. If you're not sure what the customer wants, ask questions or paraphrase with statements like, "Let me make sure I heard this correctly." Mostly, though, just listen.

"If I had to pass along one simple piece of advice, it would be to come to recognize the incredible value of silence," agrees Bill Lynott, former customer relations director at Sears, Eastern Territory. Lynott insists this technique works with nearly any type of customer, as long as you follow two rules.

"First, make absolutely certain you let the customer talk themselves out," he says. This is easier said than done.

"It's really counterintuitive," he says. Your tendency is going to be to interrupt and set the customer straight on whatever he's going on about. But hold your tongue. If you'd like to comment on something the customer has said, jot it down or make a mental note to go back to it later, then continue to let them talk.

"Let them talk and talk—there will be pauses, but don't say anything," Lynott adds. "The silence is powerful."

The second part also requires some restraint.

"Once the customer is thoroughly talked out, and you've used the power of silence to what you feel is the maximum, then you say, 'What would you like me to do for you?'"

The potential answer may frighten you more than the customer himself, but you'll soon realize the bark was worse than the request.

"You think the customer is going to ask for something outrageous, but nine times out of 10, the request is less than you were prepared to give," Lynott says. "I've done this, and it works like a charm. The most difficult customer in the world softens themselves up by talking themselves out."

In fact, sometimes, the customer won't want anything at all. They just want to vent, and once done venting, they're happy.

While the customer is enjoying her vent-session, keep in mind this insightful point: "Anger is really a disguise for something quite different, and that is fear," says Jill Griffin, author of Customer Loyalty: How to Earn it, How to Keep It and owner of the Austin, Texas-based Griffin Group. The fear could stem from a number of issues.

"Fear of being taken advantage of or appearing foolish in front of family or friends," Griffin says. By recognizing this basic human emotion, an employee has a completely different perspective and understanding—and an advantage to help keep the Bully at bay.

The Bully Caveat

While calming the customer is important, it's not always entirely possible. If you feel that a customer may become abusive, then your safety and that of your employees is more important than satisfying the customer. Rather than pulling them aside, you should stay where other people can see you. If you're serving alcohol at your facility, pay particular attention to aggressive customers.

Also, make sure you set some boundaries. While the customer deserves respect, it doesn't mean letting the customer walk all over you. For example, if someone starts cursing, you might say, "I'd like to continue this discussion, but I can't if you're going to use foul language."

"There is a line you establish," says Jill Griffin, author of Customer Loyalty: How to Earn it, How to Keep It. If you've already allowed the customer to go past that line, and you're at the brink of being abused, then you have to take measures to end the discussion as tactfully as possible, she stresses.