How to Deal with Customers

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

How to hire and train employees to be responsive to customer needs.

I use a computer, so when I saw a coupon in a business magazine offering a box of diskettes free to anyone who dropped into a computer store, I thought this would be a good opportunity to replenish my supply and look over two software programs I wanted to see. Taking a colleague in tow, I trotted off to the shop.

After standing around for several minutes while the receptionist watched but said nothing we were finally approached by a salesman. We presented the coupon and told him we were interested in some software. Imagine our surprise when he merely replied that they were out of diskettes and turned away.

“Wait,” we said, “when will you have more?”
“I don’t know, “ he said. “But you could go to our other store for them.” This didn’t seem very reasonable to us, as the other store was located in another city a half-hour drive away.

At this point, the salesman walked away. “We’d like to look at some software,” we called after him. He returned but, upon learning the name of the software, told us they didn’t carry it. He was unable to find any information on it and didn’t offer to get any for us, so we left the store disappointed and disgruntled.

A week or so later, I was in the city where the other store was located, so I decided to try again for the diskettes and software. But when I presented the coupon this time, I was informed that it was no longer any good. When I asked why, the salesman told me it had expired two days ago. “But, “ I said, “it doesn’t have any expiry date on it, and your other store told me to come here!”

“Well, that’s not my fault,” he said. “The printer forgot to put on the date, and the other store had no business telling you that.”

These dreadful encounters piqued my curiosity, so I asked the store manager why they had run the promotion. He seemed surprised that anyone should ask, since it was clear in his mind that its purpose was to attract people to the company and to demonstrate its products and services. After hearing about my experiences, he apologized, then saw me to the door- still without diskettes and software.

Once more a customer left frustrated and unhappy. Instead of generating goodwill by giving away a $5 item and making a sale of several hundred dollars, these salesmen lost both the sale and the goodwill. This shouldn’t have happened.

Why did this occur and how could it have been avoided? Neither the manager nor the two salesmen were skilled in knowing how to treat customers. They didn't understand the purpose of their promotion and advertising campaign, nor did they know how to capitalize on the opportunities it created. What's even worse, none of them was able to see the negative impression they created and how to overcome it.

Obviously, there had been a serious breakdown in communications. Neither store knew what the other was doing nor had told the sales force what was about to happen. Poor planning had resulted in one store not having enough of the items on hand. And there was no coordinated plan for handling this.

Getting customers into the shop was a major goal, one the advertising promotion accomplished. But the salespeople and the receptionist in the first store had not been trained in making customers feel important and welcome. Sales people should be highly skilled in promoting the company, its services and products. But no one in these stores even attempted to show us around, demonstrate a machine, interest us in software, or make a sale, even when we gave them every opportunity to do so.

If salespeople are to be effective, they must be able to close a sale and get the order. We never got to this point, and no orders were ever asked for or taken.

These skills and methods of operation don't appear by magic; they take planning, coordination, and training. All three elements were missing here. They shouldn't have been.

Another good way to lose sales and turn off customers is to treat them as second-class citizens with brains only slightly larger than peas. You may have been treated like this yourself sometime. It usually occurs when you are attempting to purchase a new machine or product with features you haven't used before.

Successful salespeople are willing to spend whatever time it takes to explain patiently, demonstrate, and extol the features to you. Unsuccessful ones not only don't do any of this, but they also treat you like a moron because you don't understand. I was treated this way in another computer shop several years ago (is there a message here?) when looking for my first computer.

After cornering a salesman, he asked me what features I wanted on a computer. When I said I didn't know, he sighed and rattled off a long list of unintelligible words and phrases, which I assumed had something to do with computers. At this point, I shamefacedly admitted that although I had graduated from high school and had, in fact, more than one graduate degree, I didn't have the least idea what he was talking about. I'll never forget his reply: "Well, if you don't know about computers, how do you expect me to help you?" Needless to say, he didn't -- and I didn't buy there, nor have I ever been back.

Treating customers as second-class citizens results in lost sales. There are many other ways to alienate customers. One favorite method is to have a darned good argument with them. This is often good fun. It breaks up an otherwise boring day, gives you something to talk about with other staff members, and really builds your ego, even if it is at the expense of your sales. This is particularly effective if you do it in front of other customers, in front of the customer's spouse and children, or you mutter the word "idiot" a few times under your breath.

Salespeople who do this tend not to last long but, unfortunately, they do move on to inflict themselves on new groups of customers. You can avoid all this, painlessly and easily, by providing your salespeople with the skills they need to be effective. Dealing with a difficult customer is an art that can be learned, if you spend the time and money to make your salespeople the best they can be. After all, their success is your success.

Salespeople who are the opposite to the argumentative type can also be a millstone around your neck, These are the types who just can't stand up to determined, loud, or abrasive customers. Confronted by such a customer, they cave in and agree to impossible delivery dates, overgenerous discounts, extended warranties, and may even throw in an extra item or two for good measure. I always look for this type when I go shopping, but they drive their employers mad.

It has been said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and this is especially true if your staff members have less knowledge than the customers. This is most serious when the customers know more about your products than the people who are selling them, or when the customers know how to negotiate better than they do. Once again, there are some obvious solutions.

Be sure your salespeople know everything there is to know about your products and services. You must develop good product-knowledge seminars and give them the information they need to do their jobs. This is especially true for staff in order-intake departments. Nothing is more frustrating for customers, or surer to result in a screw-up, than when order-takers don't have a clue about the product being ordered. If they haven't seen it, touched it, smelled it, tasted it, used it, or seen it in operation, they shouldn't be selling it.

The issue of negotiation is a field in itself. Herb Cohen wrote a book called You Can Negotiate Anything! and he's right. But watch out. The salesperson who knows nothing about negotiation is a goner if he or she comes up against a skilled practitioner. Negotiating skills can be learned, and they are extremely useful skills for anyone, but they are essential for salespeople.

Dealing with customers can be one of the most difficult, frustrating jobs in the world. But it can also be fun and rewarding in more ways than one. Knowledge is the key. Those that have it are successful; those that don’t aren't.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.