"Take me to your supervisor!" he shrieked, face red with fury.
"My supervisor is off work now, sir. I am sorry that you missed your flight to Rio de Janeiro because the connecting flight was late. I cannot change the fact that you have missed your flight but I can make sure you have a comfortable night's stay and get to Rio tomorrow", came the reasoned reply.
"I don't want to go to Rio tomorrow! I want to go today", came the murderous reply.
"I can't help you get to Rio today sir as there are no other flights on any of the carriers. I can get you a bed for the night, a voucher for some food and a guaranteed seat on tomorrow's first flight," a slightly more curt reply came from the customer service representative.
"How does that help me? I will miss two important meetings and I may now not need to go to Rio anyway. And why? Your airline waited two hours at Dallas airport to get passengers off the flight that they had deliberately overbooked. Your airline stuffs up and I get to miss important meetings even though I did nothing wrong," came the exasperated reply.
Not all difficult situations with customers come from such clear cut unmet expectations. Customers are, however, only difficult because of their attitude to being put in a situation where their needs are not being met. It may be that their attitude or their needs are "unreasonable". However, if we can better match the needs of a customer to what we deliver, the customer's perception of our service will be measurably higher.
Here are a range of customer situations where the need of the customer may appear to be unreasonable but with a little professionalism we can eliminate the risk of the customer having an aggressive attitude towards their need not being met.
The early customer:
In a restaurant, receive him courteously and explain when service will begin. Offer him a comfortable seat, possibly in the lounge, and give him a newspaper or magazine.
In a hotel, when they are early for check-in let them know when their room will be available. Ask them where they have come from. They may have been travelling a long way and a shower or a drink may be a welcome offering. They may also enjoy a paper to read or a quiet place to do some work. Remember, even though they are early they will be a paying customer over the next few days.
In an office environment, when they are early for a meeting at your premises, let them know when the person they are there to see will be available and offer them a warm drink on a cool day and a cold drink on a hot day and perhaps a place to work if they are very early.
The late customer:
In a restaurant, make her feel welcome. If the food selection is limited, explain that it's near closing time. Endeavour to provide good service without making her feel that she is being hurried.
In an hotel, find them a room. If they are very late and the rooms in the hotel, including theirs, have been assigned to guests find them a room in a nearby hotel for the first night. Do what you can to keep them positive. They are usually late for a reason which has not put them in a good mood, such as a cancelled flight or very heavy traffic over a long distance. Very few people deliberately turn up late.
In an office environment, do what you can to make them comfortable whilst you find out if the meeting they have come for can still go ahead if they are visiting you. Offer alternatives if you can, such as a shorter meeting without the nice chit chat to start with or perhaps with a delay for a short while.
If you are visiting them, decide whether you can complete your business in a reduced amount of time dependent on your and their schedules. If not, rearrange a time.
The hurried customer:
In a restaurant, tell him in advance approximately how long the service will take. Ask how long they have to spend in the restaurant. Give the best service possible under the circumstances. Offer alternatives to keep the service short.
In an hotel, ask what their deadline is and what is causing the rush. You may be able to offer suggestions to ease the hurry. For example, calling ahead to advise that the customer will be late or offering alternative travel arrangements which will be faster.
In an office environment, similarly enquire to find out why they are rushed. Try to find alternatives that will ease their sense of panic even if it means resetting your appointment.
The over-familiar customer:
In a restaurant, be courteous but dignified. Avoid long conversations. Stay away from the table except when actual service is needed.
In an hotel, be similarly courteous but dignified and avoid long conversations. If the over familiarity becomes an issue with a long staying guest, ask a senior manager skilled in managing people to have a quiet word with the guest. They may not be aware that their friendly nature is coming across as being too familiar.
In an office environment take a similar approach. If the customer is a regular visitor and a long term client, it becomes even more important to communicate to the customer that some of their behaviour is being interpreted as being too familiar. It is important to both inform the customer so that they are self aware, which will fix the majority of issues, and to set boundaries for the supplier-customer relationship in the minority of cases where the concern was justified.
The grouchy customer:
In a restaurant, meet him cheerfully and see that his waitperson treats him pleasantly. Do not argue with him. Listen to his complaints courteously, but do not encourage him. Do not be distressed by unreasonable complaints.
In an hotel, take care of not only the immediate interaction in a similar way to a restaurant, but also phone ahead to other services that the customer is known to or is like to be using during their stay. If the reason for their grumpiness was something done by the hotel, then this action should be mandatory. At the receiving end of the warning other hotel outlets should make every effort to cheerful and helpful. Moods are usually transitory but they are a precursor to poor perceptions of service. Everything that can be done should be done to lift the customer's mood.
In an office environment, if the customer is grouchy occasionally, then handle the encounter as suggested for a restaurant. If the customer is continually grouchy, being cheerful morphs into being professional. You are in the relationship for the long haul. Do not allow the continual grouchiness alter your response. Serve the customer well despite their grouchy persona.
The angry customer:
In all cases listen to her, express regret at the occurrence that prompted her complaint, thank her for calling it to your attention, and try to rectify the error.
If the customer is very loud, swearing or is perceived to be acting in a threatening manner and is in an area with other customers or colleagues, ask them to go with you to a private area away from the scene. Tell the customer you want to hear the details so that you can understand the problem so you can solve the problem. Ask the customer to take a seat. It is much harder to remain angry with associated hand and body movements when you are seated. It also largely takes away any height difference and the associated perceptions of power. If the customer still remains angry, offer to get them a drink, ask if they mind if you go and get some paper and a pen to write down what they say so you don't have to rely on memory or tell them you will go and get someone more senior so that their problem can be addressed more expeditiously. Do anything you can to justifiably leave them alone for sixty seconds or so. It is hard to be angry on your own. Do not take ten minutes though as you will give them another different reason to be angry, with you.
If after some time and using all of the techniques you can to help them settle their emotions, they continue to act in a threatening manner or are shouting and swearing, tell them, "I really want to help you Sir, but I cannot continue this conversation unless you stop ".
If you are visiting them in an office environment where you are not able to direct them to a quiet place and follow the other techniques, then move to the step of confronting their behaviour. As a supplier you have no need to tolerate abusive behaviour.
In a restaurant, neither participate in criticisms of the management, nor make statements that may be construed as complaints about the restaurant. Warn other salespersons serving the troublemaker type to avoid antagonizing him. Be courteous but do not be drawn.
In an hotel, follow the advice given about restaurants but also warn other outlets and services of the identity of the troublemaker.
In an office environment, dependent on the nature of the troublemaking, given that your interactions are going to be considerably longer than in a restaurant or an hotel, be careful to determine if the value of the customer is enough to make up for the high maintenance relationships that come with trouble making customers. This may be the one customer that you would be glad to hand over to your competitor. Don't be rude in moving a trouble making client on. Increase your prices to the level that compensates adequately for the high maintenance relationship. When the customer questions the price increases, be clear it is for the extra services you need to give him over other customers. He will make one of three decisions. Accept the price increase, negotiate a less demanding approach in return for a lower price or move to a different supplier.
The tired customer:
In a restaurant, seat her at a quiet table. Assist her with wraps and packages. In cold weather, suggest a hot soup, a hot drink and some particularly appetizing light food. On a hot day, suggest a chilled salad or a frosted drink.
In an hotel, offer them a place to sleep or a place to have a shower and refresh.
In an office, offer them something to eat or drink, something to revive their sugar levels and keep the chit chat short and deal quickly with business. If you are visiting them, offer to make another appointment.