These days, an unhappy customer doesn’t complain to just a few neighbors. With Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, and other social media sites, customer gripes are broadcast to the world—and that means you have to address them quickly and smartly. So says Matthew Swyers, founder of The Trademark Co., a Vienna, Virginia-based firm specializing in protecting the trademark rights of small- and medium-sized business. Recently business writer Susan Caminiti spoke with Swyers about the best ways to handle a dissatisfied customer.
SC: When it comes to complaints is the customer always right?
MS: We always start from a foundation that the customer is always right. Now, whether their complaint is valid or not is another issue. But when a customer calls and is upset with your product or service, your first responsibility is to listen. To understand what they’re upset about means you have to listen and not just go on the defensive. They may not always be right, but at a minimum they deserve to be listened to and understood.
SC: If someone is really angry, isn’t it sometimes hard to know what they’re upset about?
MS: What often happens is that an angry customer will call a customer service line and the person they are speaking with automatically gets defensive. What you have to keep in mind is that a lot of time what people are actually complaining about isn’t exactly what they’re truly upset about. For example, a customer may yell at a car salesman that he or she is the worst car salesman ever. A defensive person will say ‘No I’m not, I have all these awards to prove how good I am,’ or something like that. At that point, what the car salesman should say is ‘Hold on, tell me what you’re upset about.’ If the customer says, you sold me a car and said it would get 17 miles per gallon but it only gets 15, then the car salesman immediately knows what the complaint is really about. Once you understand that, you can empathize and move forward with a solution.
SC: What do you mean by empathize?
MS: In any small business, you have to be able to empathize with your customers. A small business owner is in business for one reason: their customers. They are important and their complaints need to be taken seriously. You want them to feel that you’re both on the same team, and that you’re there to represent their best interests. That helps to take away their anger. You don’t want them to think that you’re at odds with them.
MS: Twenty years ago, if you had an upset consumer they might have gone to the Better Business Bureau. Today, with a person’s Twitter or Facebook account, they can blast out something negative about your company to the whole world in seconds. A customer who is thrilled with you is nice, but you have to be really careful about the customer who is upset with you. If left unattended, they can cause you a tremendous amount of damage.
SC: So what’s the first thing to say to a customer who calls and is clearly unhappy?
MS: The first words out of my mouth are: ‘Please understand my goal is to make you happy. We’re going to work our way through this together.’ Now of course, you have to mean it and be genuine about it. But when you are, it disarms people. It’s very difficult to stay angry with someone when they tell you that their goal is to make you happy. It takes the wind out of their sails.
SC: Is it better to offer them solutions or simply ask them what they want?
MS: Stress is alleviated by having options. If someone feels like they have no options, they feel like they’ve been backed into a corner. So during these calls, when you’re offering a solution, it really is analogous to offering options. When we offer options, the customer feels like the balance of power has shifted back to them.
MS: Nine out of 10 customers you can satisfy with another alternative. But that 10th one is going to want their money back. I’ll give you a simple example. You sell ice cream cones. A customer orders one and eats the entire cone right in front of you. But then he or she says, ‘I wasn’t 100 percent satisfied with that cone. I want my money back.’ You will have those customers. Every business does. So in this case, you can say, ‘You didn’t like that cone, but I’ll give you a steep discount on another flavor.’ For the majority of customers that will work and the problem is solved. But for that customer who insists on getting his or her money back, you have a decision to make. If you give in to that kind of customer, you won’t be in business very long. At some point, you do have to draw the line.
SC: And if that person goes ahead and posts something negative about your company?
MS: If you address customer complaints quickly and effectively, over time the positive buzz about a business will outrank any negative issues. When I read online reviews, if there are 150 reviews and 147 are positive and three are really negative, I can dismiss the three. Overall, if you adopt these proactive policies, a small business owner will be fine.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.