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The customer isn’t always right

You know the old saying, the traditional but simplistic view of customer service: ‘The customer is always right’. But assuming you have customers or clients that you deal with (and you’re a strange business if you haven’t) then you’ll know – really know – that the saying just isn’t true. Sometimes, when a customer is dissatisfied, they’re the one at fault.

Types of unhappy customer

Some customers change their mind after the purchase and are trying to get their money back or go back on the agreement... some didn’t realise what they were buying in the first place... some are just argumentative... some might be stressed and their complaint is nothing to do with you (or your product or service) but you’re the nearest upright object and they have to let off steam somehow… and some have a genuine complaint in which you, the supplier, are at fault. It’s not always easy to tell which type of unhappy customer you’re dealing with.

Dealing with dissatisfaction, is it really so complicated?

So what, you may wonder, is the point of this post, in a blog devoted to people management topics? Well, somebody in the business is responsible for staff training (even if that responsibility sometimes comes a long way down the list) and dealing with customers is a particular skill many of your employees will need. And dealing with customers who are in the wrong is an even more particular skill.

What’s more, while you’re not liable for your customers’ behaviour, your business may well be liable for how your employees respond to a complaint, and if a customer is demanding and unreasonable (or even illegal) action from you, well… A recent example of just that is a case concerning Sainsbury’s. A customer saw a gay couple holding hands, took offence and complained to a security guard, who then asked the couple to leave the store so that he could tell them in private that someone found them ‘disgusting’. By blindly acting on the customer’s complaint, the employee effectively put Sainsbury’s in breach of the Equality Act 2010. The act also breached Sainsbury’s own internal policies around being an inclusive retailer and not tolerating discrimination

A specialist skill set

Customer service training usually includes clear communication, listening skills, problem-solving, how to manage conflict, and so on. Clearly – from the Sainsbury’s example – context is also important. Your people need to understand the wider responsibilities and culture of your business. The days of customer service being based on ‘The customer is always right’ are long gone – the world is now too complicated for that to be practical; maybe it always was. These days, the essential principle is, ‘Treat the customer with respect’. No matter what the disagreement is, it’s possible to talk to the customer about it respectfully (even if the customer is less than respectful themselves). If that approach had been taken with the staff at Sainsbury’s security contractor, then they could have avoided quite a bit of negative media attention.

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