Lucky Here Too

Travis writes about how a customer of his web service tracked him down at home at gave him a 40-minute earful -- and why he was very lucky the customer did so, in that it revealed some problems in his delivery process of which he was not aware.

Ditto here.  I was just about to write about a very similar experience on Friday, where a customer of ours ran into a new manager who was just hell bent on collecting an extra $4 he thought we were owed -- four lousy dollars -- and this employee managed to progressively anger, then intimidate, and then outright scare a customer, up to and including trying to reach in and grab stuff out of the customer's car.  The father of a woman in the car contacted us absolutely irate -- as well he should have been.  After about 2 hours of patient listening, we got dad and the other unfortunate customers calmed down.  They will all be getting some nice freebies in the mail, and apparently we will end up with a laudatory rather than hostile customer letter, as the customers ended up being impressed that our regional VP and the out-of-state owner would spend so much time with them trying to figure out what was wrong.  I will say it was easy to be sympathetic, as I was horrified by the story.  I felt personal shame that such actions were taken in my name  (if this sounds silly or exaggerated, think again.  I have talked to a lot of people who have built successful service companies, and every one shares stories of experiencing similar shame for boneheaded actions taken by employees on their behalf.)

Unfortunately, the manager in question had to go -- this was the second time in a very short period where the manager had shown poor judgement in customer service situations.  The manager was a nice person who interviewed great and did a lot of things well, but my experience is that if you don't have good judgement on such customer service interactions, you are not suddenly going to get it next week.  So, like Travis, we were lucky to head off a potential problem before it got worse, and we were lucky to be given a chance to turn around the customers' experience.

The frustrating thing for me is that this manager had just been to my personal customer service training.  At this training I lecture several times over two days fairly passionately about customer service issues, and in fact I cover situations almost identical to the one here.  I even say in the training "I don't want you or your employees going to battle with customers over small amounts of money."

We have found that there are certain people who simply cannot put their ego aside when dealing with a customer.  If these type people get it into their head that the customer is somehow trying to get over on them or the company, even for $4, they will dig in their heals and refuse to let the customer come out on top.  In their mind, the customer is a "bad" person and does not deserve to win, and there is no way they are going to take the ego hit in letting the "bad" customer have a small victory at their expense.  But as I tell employees all the time -- if you refuse to apologize to the customer, you are not counting coup on the customer, all you are doing is delegating the task to Warren (the owner) because he is certainly going to give that customer an apology.  And likely a bunch for free camping as well.  And do you know what some employee's reactions are to my giving that customer an apology and some freebies?  They get mad at me, for not backing them up and letting that "bad" customer get away with whatever they think he is getting away with!

While absolutely predictable that some people will act this way, I have found it nearly impossible to screen for this in the interview process, and totally impossible to train this characteristic out of people.  The best we can do is watch for the first signs of these traits and let folks who evidence them go as soon as possible.  That is also why we try to make it a hard and fast rule that we never hire managers directly from outside the company, we only promote managers from field service employees who have shown good judgment on the front lines.  Once in a blue moon we ignore this rule, as we did when hiring the managers I had to fire on Friday.  Which just goes to show that it is probably a pretty good rule for our business.

  • Let me assure you the type of bend over for the customer attitude does not come easily to the standard retail person (like me), and has to be learned (drummed into our heads.) Note the way I phrased it. Managers and employees have to toe a fine line in dealing with retail customers; one study shows that an aggrieved customer will tell up to twelve friends and acquaintences of his misfortunes, or three times as many as tell friends of their good buys. The customers we remember are the ones who brought back for returns rolled up carpets unresellable because of the dog piss, the fellow ignores the line in front of him and who screams in your face wanting A PRICE NOW!! (and a low one) to the last unmarked item in stock, and the guy who complains you ignored him because he was the last in line and you had three other people in front of him... And it was very, very infuriating when one's manager "sided" with the 'enemy.' In the end, the need to pay your bills trumps all.

  • Miklos Hollender

    Warren,

    I think your problem is that the role of your managers might not be clearly defined.

    There are generally two kinds of people in this regard.

    A) People who see the world as composed of things, processes, systems, objects, and problems. They have an innate drive to make things work, make things right and correct. These kind of people make perfect engineers, software developers, mechanics, workers in a warehouse or a factory etc. Their drive to improve things makes them very good at such jobs. Generally the "supply" department. They are often bad at handling people because they see people as parts of a process, of a system that should work and should work right and therefore easily get mad at them if they are acting irrationally or immorally. I'm one of those people myself. Often this type is more introverted.

    B) People who see the world as a loose, random and chaotic system, composed of people with subjective wishes and motives, and therefore do not want to fit them into predefined categories of rationality or morality. These people are perfect in the sales department, they aren't very good in the technical, "supply" department because they don't have the drive to improve things - they see things as they are and not as they should be.

    Generally a company works very well if these two roles are clearly defined and the sales dept acts as a translator between the supply dept and the customers. This is how we work - the consultants and the support people carry messages between the developers and the customers and the most important part of the job is to translate when a customer says "this is sh*t" to an easily offended developer as "we have noticed such and such problems", and when the developer says "they are f***ing morons" as "would you like to buy more training?".

    This works well and I suppose this is how you work, the problem with many companies is that managers are assumed to have BOTH roles. Both a technical, supply-oriented job to organize schedules, handle problems, make things right, keep things moving in general, and also to talk to customers. This is cleary wrong - you have to have this separation on the managerial level as well.

    You need two managers at the top of every organizational unit: a sales/customer services manager and the internal manager who organizes things and keeps things running, because these two kinds of merits are very rarely meet in one person.

    If they would meet we would have vastly different political parties: the subjective, people-oriented ones are generally tend to libertarian, the objective, things-oriented ones generally tend to be leftist if they concentrate on rational planning or rightist if they concentrate on morality. This is an example why these two abilities very rarely meet.

  • Christer

    Warren, I completely understand that you fired the manager in the situation you are describing. But what about the ones "who brought back for returns rolled up carpets unresellable because of the dog piss"? Would you take their carpet back if you ran a store?

    I wouldn't, because I think they are, you know, wrong.

    I woulddn't want trailer trash to frequent my establishment either. They would scare other customers/guests away.

    You seem to know how to run a business, so your thoughts on this would be an interesting read.

  • Jim Collins

    I understand that this was only over $4, but where is the cutoff? I have seen too many people try to take advantage of a company's desire to please their customers. I know a woman who bought a dress, wore it to a function and then returned it the next day saying that it didn't fit. I watched a man scratch a DVD with his key, before returning it to the video store and then say that it didn't play. It has been my experience that most people are honest, but there are a few that if you give an inch they will take a mile. This time it was $4, the next time it could be $10 or more. At what point do you decide that their business isn't worth it, no matter what they tell their friends?

  • miriam

    "managers are the keepers of morale"
    I think one of the failures here was doing something active to offend the customer; unpleasant action on the customer's part does not excuse unpleasant action on yours. If there is a conflict that you feel unable to resolve appropriately (I'd guess reaching into someone's car would not apply), then you kick it up the line. That's where management should have your back. Perhaps a "we don't take back soiled merchandise as a general policy-- would you like to talk to our manager about it?".
    Instead, what happened was a flaming mess got kicked up the line...

  • Hmm, referring to problematic customers of a campground as "trailer trash" could create an entirely new set of problems.