It happens to the best of people. An upset client calls to complain about a product or service, and someone is completely caught off-guard. How should the person react? Does he fly off the handle right along with the client? Or do he respond in a calm, thoughtful way that salvages and even strengthens the relationship?
Author Maribeth Kuzmeski says that a high-pressure scenario doesn’t have to blow the client relationship sky-high — in fact, people can use it as an opportunity to truly connect with their client and keep him around for the long haul.
“Conflict is a normal part of business, and we all need to learn how to deal with it in the right way,” says Kuzmeski, author of The Connectors: How the World’s Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for Life (Wiley, September 2009).
“Some clients are just plain difficult. And yes, ‘easy’ clients can also become dissatisfied for a variety of reasons. The good news is that there are effective ways to handle conflict and resolve issues — and these methods will actually strengthen your relationship.
“Remember that quite often, unhappy clients will not even tell you that they have a problem,” she adds. “They simply move their business elsewhere. So, if a client thinks enough of you to give you the chance to repair a bad situation, take it. Play an active role in making your customer happy so that you can be sure to keep him or her on board with you.”
Creating clients for life is all about building relationships based on real human connections, and that’s the message found in Kuzmeski’s book. The Connectors describes how some of the world’s most successful professionals develop better, more-profitable connections. And a big part of the way they do it is changing the way they think about conflict.
As much as everyone hopes for smooth sailing in interactions with clients, conflicts are bound to occur. If they never happened, anyone could be a great connector. It’s what people do when there’s a problem that separates the (proverbial) men from the boys.
Here are a few tips that will help people keep their business relationships from going bad...and rescue those that have started to sour:
Extend a peace offering. It’s easy to reach out to clients when things are going well. However, it’s all too easy to avoid them when hard feelings are present. Don’t succumb to the temptation. Proactively reaching out to clients can squash any negativity they may feel for the company. Even the simplest of gestures can be effective: Offer an apology when a mistake has been made. Then, make things right by extending a peace offering. It doesn’t need to be anything extravagant. It can be as simple as a handwritten note, a refund, or a coupon.
Don’t follow “strike back” instincts. If an angry client calls fuming mad, the knee-jerk reaction might be to argue. Remember, though, fighting anger with anger seldom works. No matter how tough it is, people should do the opposite of what they feel like doing. Take a deep breath and remain calm. And most of all, diffuse the client’s anger by immediately assuring her that your company will make things right.
“When faced with difficult situations with clients, instead of giving a reactionary, defensive response, offer solutions,” Kuzmeski says. “Your first reaction may be to explain why you are right, why the client is overreacting, or to give her additional information so she can better see the situation from your point of view. However, if you check those reactions and instead start working toward a resolution, your chances of keeping that customer are much greater.”
When confronted with an angry client, say something like, “I know we did not satisfy your needs, and I assure you that we will do better in the future. Can I offer you a free gift the next time you stop in, or a discount off your next service?” The client may still want to fight, but person is dispelling her anger by staying calm and offering a helpful response. If the client is reasonable, she will eventually come around.
Get them to listen by listening to them. Customers will listen to what the representative has to say if the person respectfully listen to what they have to say first. Knowing that someone is truly listening to their concerns can cause customers to agree to suggestions much more quickly.
“Very few people in this world take the time to practice ‘curious listening,’ ” Kuzmeski says. “We instead partially listen, get ready to respond, and let our minds drift. But if you can practice curious listening, which is a form of active listening, you will differentiate yourself as someone who really cares.”
Here are the four steps of curious listening:
1. Hear the essence of what the customer is saying by repeating back what was heard.
2. Ask questions so that the customer knows that the representative is actively seeking to understand why something is important him.
3. Don't act on unsubstantiated assumptions. Confirm with the client that correctly understood what he is saying.
4. Listen for the “remarkable.” In every conversation with a client, he will say something unique and remarkable. If people listen for his “remarkable,” they will be able to come back to that later (even in a subsequent conversation) and connect with him on a different level. The “remarkable” may be something as simple as, “I’m thinking about taking an October vacation to Paris,” or, “I’m a Packers fan,” or, “We just landed our largest client!” The key is remembering it. It shows the person is really curious about what happened, how the other person feels, and what resolution was reached.
Have a standard service protocol at the ready. Creating standards, procedures, and methods of dealing with clients. “When developing a service protocol, start by recalling past situations,” Kuzmeski says. “Consider how and when a difficult client became difficult. Was a resolution reached? If so, when and how? By examining how difficult clients were handled in the past, taking into account both good and bad examples, the company can begin to set boundaries regarding what is and isn’t a proper way to react.
“Your service protocol empowers your employees to become connectors,” she adds. “Often, they might think offering a discount or a coupon is the right way to handle a situation, but they may be worried that their leader won’t approve. With the protocol, they know exactly what they can immediately offer to the client. Managers will find that effectively resolving problems with clients actually makes customers more loyal, because they see that you care about their business.”
Ask for feedback, ensuring that customers aren’t suppressing problems. “Don’t be afraid to engage your clients,” Kuzmeski says. “Ask them what you can do better, how you can improve. Supply them with feedback surveys so that they can anonymously share their thoughts...as honest[ly] as possible. And when a problem has been solved, ask them if you handled it to their satisfaction and find out if there is anything they would like for you to have done differently. Asking for feedback is a great way for you to rectify any possible or growing problems before they become so great that they sour a client relationship.”
“Clients who feel a connection with you are loyal and will stay with you — sometimes forever. Dissatisfied clients not only go elsewhere, but they also tell others of their dissatisfaction,” Kuzmeski says. “What’s even worse is that those dissatisfied clients will each tell an average of five other people about their displeasure with you. That means for every complaint, you could have up to 60 people who are walking around with a negative image of you and your company — and are talking about it.
“By actively and sincerely playing a part in resolving conflicts with your clients, you’re showing them that you are willing to do what it takes to make them happy,” she says. “You are not just fixing a problem for them. You are also turning those dissatisfied clients into delighted ones who may even become evangelists for your company.
"And we all know there is no marketing force more powerful than a customer who shares her delight with others.”