Handling Difficult Customers
Retailers offer their top tips for dealing with tricky situations
Sylvia’s By the Sea, in Scituate, Massachusetts, has a clear return policy: store credit only. It’s posted prominently in the shop, it’s on every sales receipt and the staff states it every time they ring up transactions. Yet, invariably, there will be an occasional disgruntled customer upset that the store does not refund money for returns. The solution, said Sylvia Killion, owner of three stores in the greater Boston area, is to stay positive. The customer might get angry or frustrated, but she encourages fellow retailers to stay cool. In such an instance, Killion will remind customers that they’re getting a gift certificate that can be used indefinitely at any location, and more often than not, that serves to defuse the situation.
Things get worse during Christmas time when the window for such transactions (the usual policy is seven days with receipt) can get tricky. If it’s a gift, Killion will have staff note it down on receipts so potential exchanges and returns can be handled after the holidays. In any case, Killion said loyal customers are worth breaking the rules for. “If you have a customer who shops with you all the time, they just forgot or whatever, absolutely make the accommodation,” she added.
Sometimes these accommodations turn out to be easier than you had imagined, said Francene Pisano Dudziec, owner of Monogram Muse. Dudziec, located in Moosic, Pennsylvania, used to own a monogramming brick-and-mortar store before she moved her business entirely online. She now also sells select pieces wholesale. While she’s had her share of difficult customers, Dudziec said the solution is to just hear them out. “Sometimes I’ll ask ‘what can I do to satisfy you’ and the answer is less than what I had feared,” she said.
Linda O’ Boyle, owner of Metro Home Style in Syracuse, New York, agreed that customers just need their feelings to be validated. “No matter how well run your store is, there’s always going to be someone who is not happy. I don’t think the customer is always right but you have to respect them and make them feel that they’re always right. They want to tell you about it, and you need to let them tell you. They want to vent. We just have to kind of work with them to resolve a difficult situation.”
O’Boyle’s home accessories and gifts store means a lot of potential for damaged goods from breakage. Unattended children present a particular challenge in this regard.
If she sees a child walking around with breakable and high-ticket items, she gently replaces it with something that is indestructible. “This keeps the moms shopping, you don’t want them to get all frazzled and leave the store,” O’Boyle said.
Killion has a playroom with toys so children stay away from the rest of the goods. She worries about unattended children though and said it’s worth it to watch the child or have staff who can do so. Sometimes if things get really hairy, she will walk with the child and go on a hunt looking for Mom. One of these strategies has invariably worked. The trick, of course, is to have the moms stay and shop while not having the child wreck things.
Social media strategies
Especially important in the age of instant social media, is to make sure customers don’t take their complaints online. Even when that happens, it’s important to acknowledge the negative reviews, O’Boyle said. “Don’t get into an argument with a customer online,” she added. There’s just no winning there.
Cynthia Sutton-Stolle, owner of The Silver Barn in Columbus, Texas, said she remembers when a customer posted something negative on Facebook, and she just talked about the problem (and resolved it) offline.
The owner of the bridal, home accessories and gifts store also has found that customers just need to vent. “If you talk to them and defuse the situation calmly,” she said, “soon they begin to realize they’re over-reacting and start getting apologetic.”
The best solution always, Sutton-Stolle said? “Kill them with kindness. That always works.” GS