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A Show of Strength

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(Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/Aseev)

Howard Scott |

CHICAGO — Visiting a drycleaning plant recently, I witnessed the following encounter: An angry customer demanded to see the boss. When the boss came to the front, the customer took off his sportscoat and showed him his shirt cuffs. He pointed out that the cuffs weren’t straight and were a bit dingy.
The boss tried to comment, but the customer wouldn’t let him get a word in edgewise. He began to berate the drycleaner. “You don’t care enough about me to take good care of my clothes,” he said. I could see the boss start to wilt under the pressure.
After going on and on—and annoying the other customers—the customer finished with, “My name is Bob Cumbers [not his real name], and I demand I be given special treatment.” In shame, the boss said, “Yes, Mr. Cumbers.” The boss looked like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Is this an example of “The customer is always right,” or an example of a business operator who doesn’t know how to handle himself professionally?
I think it’s the latter. While it is true that the customer is always right (at least in the customer-service handbook), it is also true that the customer can’t abuse the privilege. If the customer doesn’t know enough to be reasonable, you should show him or her how to behave.
Remain in control. Never forget that you—not the customer—are the person with the cleaning expertise. Come from strength, not weakness. Perhaps this is easier said than done, but everyone can work at not letting customer complaints ruin the day.
For starters, you’re the expert. You know about fabrics, and why a particular material acts one way or another. You understand what happens to stains when they are put under heat and pressure. You know why one type of fabric behaves in one way and another behaves in another when the same spotting agents are applied.
What’s more, you have the professional experience necessary to trace the series of processes backward and make a best guess at what happened to dissatisfy the customer. You have the computer skills necessary to come up with all relevant information that could help illuminate the situation.
A ranting customer can only spew forth his anger and ignorance. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong; he just might be on the wrong track as to what happened. He probably doesn’t care why something occurred; he only cares that it did and that it never will again. The  “whys” of the situation could point to an explanation, however.
For example, perhaps he asked that a stain be treated even though your counterperson explained it might not be possible, or it might make the stain worse. In that situation, he is in the wrong. Placing the blame might not change the outcome, but it should have some effect on the discussion.
Second, you’re a proud, successful business owner who has spent many years in the industry, churning out clean, fresh clothes day after day. You’ve performed a few miracles along the way, saving customers’ clothes from the trash pile. There was that suit on which you ingeniously figured out how to hide a discoloration, that dress you saved from the wine stain, the pants you reinvented by creating cuffs.
You don’t want to be rude or uncompromising, but you want to argue from strength. If you believe that the customer is always right, you’re already compromising a little, but you will handle a negotiation like the one above with dignity.
You come to the table (or counter) with a professional bearing. An angry customer does not cow you, because he is at his weakest when he is letting off steam. You remain confident of your expertise and your company’s abilities, because you are the ultimate professionals. Even if a mistake was made—and that’s possible because everyone makes mistakes—you know that the predicament is not the end of the world.
To a yelling customer, you might hold up your hands and say, “Just a second, Mr. Cumbers, yelling won’t solve anything. I’ve been your drycleaner for a decade, and if we made a mistake, we’ll make good on it. But let’s work on the problem together. I might need some time to find out what happened, but I promise you that I will come up with a solution that is satisfactory. After all, I don’t want to lose you as a customer. You know I value your patronage.”
If the customer insists on ranting, stand there with a deadpan expression until the customer gets the bile out of his system. Don’t interrupt. Don’t answer his questions, or do it with a minimum of words. Let the monologue flow and eventually peter out. When the customer begins to lose steam, say, “Are you finished? Now, let’s see how we can solve the problem,” and take leadership of the discussion.
These kinds of responses should calm the customer down and give a chance to investigate the problem. You might have to repeat the words or variations of them during negotiations, but your job is to put the customer at ease. And you can do so from a position of strength. You don’t have to cower before the customer, or look like a miserable failure who can’t do anything right. You don’t need to feel disgraced because, frankly, you’re better than that. And you will certainly not stoop to the customer’s anger by venting your own annoyance.
If attitude is everything, then perhaps the key is to accept the problem as a challenge. Your goal? To turn customer annoyance into customer acceptance and eventually, satisfaction. What does the customer want, and how can you best fulfill those needs? Within this framework, your handling of the situation will be far different. Be a professional, and operate from strength.

About the author

Howard Scott

H&R Block

Industry Writer, Drycleaning Consultant, and H&R Block Tax Preparer

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant, and an H&R Block tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359.

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