I walked into the white office room to find the red face of my biggest client glaring at me from behind his intimidating mahogany desk. My company had just made another price increase on his last purchase, and he was furious. Someone higher up the ladder, safely behind a cubicle, had made a decision to increase profit by adding an additional fee. Because of this, I now had to defuse the frustration hitting me like waves as I sat, feeling very much like I was a kid in the principles office, under his foreboding glare.
In every customer / business relationship, conflict will arise. It's unavoidable. So, you may as well prepare for the storm or rainbow now... depending on how you view it. However, if you choose to see the good side of this unique interaction, you may find that working through the trials successfully with your customer actually leads to a more loyal relationship.
There are two kinds of customers: those who have a genuine reason to be upset because of unmet expectations, and those who milk the system of “the customer is always right” to their highest advantage. Both types can be managed similarly to create the best win / win scenario. Here are my top 10 sales secrets that I used dealing with my most difficult customers.
1) See the Opportunity
Every time conflict arises, you have the chance to become the hero. The more intense the emotion people experience, the more concrete the memory of the event. Think of this moment as the opportunity to take a picture and store it in their mind of their opinion of you and your company. The reason for their anger may or may not be your fault, but how you deal with a frustrated customer from this point forward will be something that they remember. You do not want to waste this!
This is the time to convince them of their value to you. If through this trial, they learn that you will fight for them and not against them, you can quickly turn them from enemy to ally.
2) Be Willing to Walk in their High Heels or Flip Flops
No matter what type of customer you encounter, or what type of shoes they wear, your ability to put yourself in their position is critical to a positive outcome. They must feel your concern for them, and know that you see things from their perspective. They must truly believe that you empathize. Be willing to apologize for things that aren't your fault. Sometimes, people just want to be heard, allowed to vent, and given a sincere apology. When you combine this approach with a willing consultant invested in finding a mutually beneficial solution, magic can happen.
3) Listen Actively and Communicate With Calming Words
Your communication skills will be tested at every conflict. Sometimes, customers just need to vent. Let them do so. Don't interrupt them. Once they are done, try to repeat their main points back to them, so that they know that they have been heard and you have a good grasp of their issue.
Be careful of the verbiage you use. Phrases such as, “What's your problem?” “Calm down.” "It's company policy!” will just trigger more anger. Instead, tell them that you understand why they are frustrated. Thank them for bringing this issue to your attention. Apologize that this happened to them. And then, offer to sincerely work towards fixing their complaint to their highest satisfaction.
4) Grab the Paper Bag and Breathe
We are all human. No one likes to be yelled at or blamed for things by an unhappy, angry person. The natural response is to defend and defy. Employ whatever anger management techniques are needed for you to quell this response. This will put you soundly above most other sales consultants.
One thing that I always tried to keep at the forefront of my mind when dealing with an unhappy customer was that their anger hitting me full force wasn't personal. Usually, they were angry over an action taken by my company, and I was just the unlucky face that they focused on as the target. I was no longer Sarah... I was the Company. This helped during some more intense schooling sessions.
Sometimes, after we had worked out a more mutually beneficial solution, I would even get an unsolicited apology from the client for their misdirected rage. I wouldn't hold my breath for those moments, but they are nice when they occur.
5) Reflect the Calmest of Waters
Angry customers can often calm down just by the energy you reflect back at them. If they are talking loud and fast, change your responses to slow and soft. Maintain eye contact, act concerned, listen, and absorb their frustration instead of giving it back to them. This technique actually often works in any argument; so you're welcome!
If you find out about an angry customer over email or the phone, go to see them personally if at all possible. It is a lot harder to yell at someone to their face than over the phone or over email. You will find that many lions become kittens when you just care enough to show up.
6) Work Your Conflict Management Mojo Like Everyone is Watching
Because they may just be! It is the age of smart phones, after all. But, even if they aren't, with the ease of social media, one angry customer can turn away many more potential sales dollars just by writing up a scathing review of your company and typing up the account the way they remember it. And, your performance is, to them, the same thing as the company's performance. You check your autonomy in at the door once you put on the name badge and pass out the business cards.
So, picture a grandstand watching this exchange. One side is filled with your many customers, and on the other side sit the members of your company. This is a good mental exercise to challenge you to find the best solution for everyone.
This technique also helps you remember to avoid blaming either side. You will shoot yourself in the foot if you blame the customer. Yet, it's also not professional to bad-mouth your company to get in good with your client. In the end, it further degrades their overall confidence in the company. Even if they like you, they won't stick around if another company woos them.
7) Set Clear Expectations Going Forward
Conflict occurs because expectations are not met. You can avoid a lot of conflict initially just by being honest upfront of the potential issues that could arise. In fact, I would rather lose a sale because I didn't sugar coat an issue for a customer than deal with an angry client on the back end. However, not everyone does this, and sometimes you are left with an irate client telling you about the broken promises of others.
Anytime expectations are not met, trust is lost. It is your job to make sure you start building back lost faith immediately. Set clear expectations of what you will be able to do to provide a solution, and also what you won't.
8) Find a Solution and Give Up the Bigger Pie Slice
Let's face it, the customer is always right. Part of being in sales is learning to find solutions that are best for everyone; but if you can't, you let them win as much as possible. Even a small concession is often all people need to feel like they've had a victory.
I also realize that there are some customers that are notorious about playing this card. Depending on their capacity to do business with me, I would still often go the extra mile to keep them happy. Often, that's all that they wanted... to feel valued.
I had a few customers that other sales people warned me as being very temperamental, but I never had any issue with them. I just did whatever I could to keep them happy, and was also honest about what was outside my ability to influence.
I remember one client who hated using our company ordering system. Instead, she preferred to text me her order over the cell phone. I would then personally type it up for her and send it in. Was this a bit more work for me? Sure, but it was always a large order. Was it worth it when my commission check came through every quarter? Absolutely. Because I showed her I valued her business enough to put in a bit of overtime, she rewarded me with large orders.
9) Know Your Limitations Before You Show Up
While the customer is always right, and you should always do everything you can to appease them, there are rare instances where their behavior toward you can become abusive. You must clearly set this line in your head before the conflict arises. The definition is slightly different for everyone, but most people can agree on the extremes.
In my years as a sales consultant, I never had one issue of violence. However, I would have certainly disengaged from any situation where I felt unsafe. I also did not tolerate sexual harassment, and had to cut a client out of my route for this kind of behavior. Always make sure you never stay in a situation that goes over the line.
For the more typical bad egg, where the decision to continue is more nebulous, you may need to look at your overall energy and investment per sale. If you are putting in a lot of time with no end in sight to make someone happy, and you can see no win for you, it may be time to politely tell the client that they should consider other companies. All that invested time which is giving you such a poor ROI could be better spent on nicer customers who want to do business with you. Don't be afraid to graciously cut your losses when it no longer makes sense to continue.
10) Say It, Then Do it
After you've listened to their complaint, and you both agree on a mutually beneficial solution, make sure to do exactly what you promise. Always keep your client in the loop. If you promise to call them at the end of the day, do so. Even after the situation is resolved, follow up again to make sure everything worked out as they expected. If you go the extra mile to make sure they are happy, they won't forget it.
While no one likes conflict, it is inevitable in any business relationship dealing with a large volume of customers. Sadly, it's impossible to always make everyone happy all of the time. However, being fair, empathetic, and honest will go a long way towards building a bridge of trust with your customer.
So, next time you hear the frustrated tone of an unhappy client, inwardly put on your cape... because they just gave you the chance to be their hero.