Difficult Customers Part II – Equal Business Stature

Last time, I spoke about taking the long view with difficult customers, and how it is critically important to keep in mind the lifetime value of the customer when you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to let a customer walk all over you and treat you poorly when one of these awkward situations arise. When this happens, remember the concept of Equal Business Stature.
Equal business stature is a theory that comes from the world of B2B sales, but is equally effective in the retail environment. In our case, equal business stature is about maintaining a “level playing field” when dealing with an upset customer, usually involving a return or defective merchandise. Often, issues arise when the customer is as fault, and they know it. They become defensive and deflect the responsibility on to you. They improperly washed a garment and destroyed it, maybe they special ordered an item that they now want to return, or maybe they bought a complete Thule Rack system, box and all, only to come back into the store screaming and yelling about how terrible their gas mileage was, and how the box pinched a finger, and how poorly made the entire product is. All of this coincidentally occuring after a March break ski trip….
My point is that in these awkward, and often over the top situations, customers will approach you thinking that the more angry and aggressive they behave, the more likely they will get their way.  By default, this creates an uneven playing field, with the customer firmly in control. Many retailers revert back to a passive, and subservient role of  “The Customer is Always Right”.  Now, we definitely want to understand what this customer means to our business – their lifetime value,  but that doesn’t mean that you have to let this difficult customer treat you like dirt.
You want to handle these situations by asking questions to determine what the issues are, as well as the reasons why the product or the situation has made them so unhappy.  It should be a business conversation among equals – Equal Business Stature. Be curious, a little skeptical, and emotionally unattached to the outcome. You don’t have to “win” this argument. You want to come to a satisfactory conclusion that hopefully  keeps the relationship intact. Asking questions, maintaining your composure, and providing options / solutions will quickly de-escalate the situation and shift you back into the role of a trusted advisor in the eyes of your customer. But, you must provide a solution. It doesn’t have to be the full refund that they came in hoping for, but you do have to think about what you can do for this customer (even the most terrible ones). By asking questions, you are much more likely to get to the true cause of the problem, or pain that is making this customer act this way. Think on your feet, know your products, know your markdowns, know your substitutions, know your vendors, etc.
Finally, make sure to follow up with the customer. This can be difficult, as often these customers are infuriating and rude, but if you were able to come to an amicable conclusion, following up is a great way to rebuild the relationship. By sending them a quick email or phone call, you have shown that you have their best interests in mind and usually that is enough to repair their previous feelings towards your business. The best part is that no one ever does this. You instantly become the business that reached out to make sure they are ok! When was the last time anyone got a follow-up call from Amazon?
Hopefully, you don’t have to employ this too often in your business. But when you find yourself in a situation with an emotionally charged customer, remember Equal Business Stature, and you will put yourself in the best possible position to come away with a result that you can live with.
*** Now, the caveat to all of this is that if they are threatening, or destructive, or vile, tell them to get out and don’t think twice. Any consideration towards lifetime value goes out the window when someone doesn’t have enough tact to control themself. ***
Johnny McLellan Retail Coach
Johnny McLellan
Johnny’s retail background goes back over twenty years. His retail obsession started as a 15-year-old “shop kid” tuning skis in the back of the local ski shop. Since then, Johnny’s experience has included over a decade of retail entrepreneurship, highlighted by the creation and operation of a high-end Outdoor Sporting Goods retail business. Johnny’s passion is finding out what is possible within the modern retail environment. From new technology, to new ideas, Johnny works with like-minded retailers to uncover the strategies and tactics that produce results in this ever-changing retail landscape.