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Inside Marketing: Who’s Your Gladys?

May 2011 – Vol: 34 No. 5

How to turn even the most difficult customer into your biggest fan

Credit union customer service representatives are no stranger to difficult members. It is the problem member who makes the job tough. But the problem member can also present the greatest opportunity, according to a book by two customer service experts.

In Who’s Your Gladys?: How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan (AMACOM 2009), Marilyn Suttle and Lori Jo Vest show readers how to create excellent customer service, from preventing difficult situations to handling the inevitable—with the right amount of delicacy and care to turn the worst into the best.

Gladys was a very real customer for Professional Movers in Detroit. The spunky—some would say cranky—87-year-old woman whose marble tabletop was broken on moving day became the toughest customer the company faced. Unable to repair it, her salesman took the extra time and money to make things right. He personally escorted her to pick out a new tabletop and have it delivered to her new home. Now Gladys is their biggest supporter and tells everyone to hire Professional Movers. Rather than a disgruntled customer, they have a strong source of ongoing referrals.

Customers aren’t problems or time sinks, but people providing your business with an opportunity for improvement. Suttle and Vest argue that the value of the customer should be engrained in a business from the top down. A company culture that values strong relationships with its customers, from hiring empathetic staff to encouraging employees to take ownership of their roles and responsibilities, creates an overall attitude that attracts customers. However, customer service is also important on an individual level where creative problem-solving and emotional management skills form strong bonds with customers.

“While many tactics for improvement address one aspect or another of your business, what we’ve discovered is that changing how you and your staff think about your customers can make the most difference,” clarifies Vest, a manager with over 20 years of experience in sales and customer service management. “Strong mood management and relationship skills have a direct and significant impact on professional, and therefore business, growth.”

Let this customer service quiz adapted from the book guide you through your difficult member interactions.

1. How do you handle an abrasive customer who is pushing all your buttons?
Show her even more care. Sometimes the more challenging customers can turn out to be your biggest, most vocal supporters. When you depersonalize abrasive behavior and see it as a call for help, you become a catalyst for the best kind of change. Look for the positive qualities in your client’s negative behavior.

2. What helps stressed-out customers relax and develop trust in your company?
Customers want to know that their needs will be met. Become aware of your customers' expectations and concerns, and let them know what you will do. Reassure them and take action. Putting your customers' fears to rest helps them relax and work with you, instead of against you.

3. What is the most direct way to find out how to make your customers' lives easier?
Ask questions. Tap into your curiosity and start by asking yourself, “What information would allow me to be more helpful to this person?”

4. How do you address your customers' emotional concerns?
Notice what your customers' stress points are, and let them know what you will do about them.

5. Why is it important that you be consistent in the way you present your services to customers?
When customer service is arbitrary, you get arbitrary results. Plan your service processes, train your employees, and then refine the processes based on customers’ responses. Patterns will emerge, and you’ll get more repeat business.

6. How can your company become a customer favorite?
Authentic interest in your customers creates uncommon success. When you know what customers need and you respond accordingly, you create a connection that keeps you in their minds and contact lists for years.

7. What do I do if I don't know how to solve a customer service issue?
Acknowledge that you don't know how to solve it; then work quickly to find the answer. Most clients don't mind hearing “I'll have to check with my boss” as long as they know you're truly trying to help them. Having the right customer service attitude is the most important step toward success. Always be open to learning new things about your business and about customer service.

8. What is the best approach to dealing with unusual customer requests?
The key is to remain calm and attentive. If a customer calls you with an odd request, stand back and think before you say no. Perhaps meeting that request might be possible with minimal extra effort—effort that could pay off in a stronger client relationship.

9. What is the best possible way to communicate with customers during a crisis? How do I provide “calm in the storm” for my customers?
If something has gone wrong, offer your personal apology. Even if the circumstance isn’t your fault, you can feel sorry that your customers had to experience difficulty. Most customers want to feel important, and being rushed conveys several things—including disorganization, lax service, and, most of all, stress. The calm you feel gives your customers permission to relax and trust you.

10. What can I do to counteract my feelings of impatience with a customer?
Shift from being impatient with your customer to being impatient for your customer. When you express urgency in resolving a client's issue, the client will sense it and will appreciate your efforts.

11. How can I become more conversational with customers?
You are more likely to have a relaxed, enjoyable interaction with a customer when you let down your guard. Talk to your customer the way you'd talk to a friend and he'll most likely let his guard down as well.

12. How do I recover from a costly mistake?
The best way to recover from a mistake is to learn from it. Whether you see it as tuition toward your education or as an opportunity to test your integrity by keeping your promises despite financial loss, you will ultimately grow from the experience.

13. What can you do to help your customers handle waiting?
Customers who are treated to an entertaining experience or an unexpected nicety when they’re forced to wait are less inclined to complain about the inconvenience. High-end salons and spas typically offer tea or coffee to their customers when they’re waiting for their stylist or masseuse.

Adapted from Who’s Your Gladys?: How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan (AMACOM 2009) by Marilyn Suttle and Lori Jo Vest.

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