Not Always Right
May 26, 2009 - 12:17pm

How do you approach situations that may involve an unreasonable customer? What do you do if a shopper is venting inappropriately at someone on your staff? Or returning yet another item long after it was purchased?

It may be easy, and wise, to give into the customer’s wishes. But sometimes, the cost incurred is just too great, and the customer has to go. “I have a saying,” says Ken Lebersfeld, principal at Capitol Lighting in Boca Raton, FL. “The customer is always right except when the customer is wrong.”

A Dirty Little Secret

Researchers at the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University have published an article, “Serving Unfair Customers” in Retailing Issues Letter. Authors Dr. Leonard L. Berry and Dr. Kathleen Seiders say this: “That the customer is sometimes wrong is a dirty little secret of marketing, known to many but barely discussed in public—or in print.”

The truth is, unfair, unreasonable and virulent customers can take their toll on your company. They can increase employee stress and turnover, penalize your good customers and create a sour mood on the salesfloor. The latter can happen especially if policies and guidelines are not well defined, leading to customers of all types being viewed with suspicion.

What works? “The guidelines we use are what is the potential and history of the customer in terms of sales,” says Lebersfeld. “We’re certainly a lot more willing to do something unreasonable for a customer who has spent $10,000 than for a customer who has spent $10.”

Nina Klotz, owner of City Lights in San Francisco, fights the unreasonable customer by going on the offensive. “We try and cover our bases ahead of time so that it doesn’t become a problem,” Klotz says. “We tell everyone that if you want to return it there will be a restocking charge. If you buy something on display, it’s final sale.”

Fair but Firm

Berry and Seiders suggest in their article that management take a fair but firm approach to the problem. They say the key lies in having a good plan — contingencies defined and management trained to handle each case.

This works well at Capitol Lighting. “I feel that a store manager is necessary to balance out, to adjudicate, each customer request,” Lebersfeld says. “We’re hoping as executives that the store manager would err on the side of the customer, but not let the business be taken advantage of by an unscrupulous customer.

“If it’s an unreasonable solution that costs us $20, then we’re more likely to do it,” Lebersfeld continues. “If it’s going to cost a few hundred dollars then we have to look at it more carefully. We look to the long-term benefit of the customer, and we look to the story the customer will tell a friend out at dinner, because we have no chance to rebut that.”

Berry and Seiders urge service managers to assess the fairness versus unfairness issue by drawing upon past experience, soliciting employee input and surveying customers previously involved in unfair incidents. This way, they can evaluate existing practices and consider changes.

In the end, though, it may be best to let the customer slide. “If something’s defective after a year, we’ll just eat [the cost]. It’s not worth the hassle,” says Klotz. “I haven’t had to throw anybody out of my showroom, but if someone does something that’s inappropriate then I will ask them to leave.”

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