When I was 16 years-old, I worked for an athletic chain store that had a clearly displayed return policy which was the same throughout all the stores. I served as both cashier and customer service when a customer walked in one day with one flip-flop shoe. This was many years ago, but I remember the conversation almost verbatim:
Customer: I would like to return this shoe.
Me: (blank stare) Do you have the other shoe?
Customer: No. It fell off at the beach while I was on vacation last week, that’s why I want to return it.
Me: They’re flip-flops, they’re not meant to be worn inside the ocean, but okay, do you have a box or a receipt?
Me: Sir, there’s no way we can return one shoe?
Customer: I demand to see your manager!
Me: Alright. [At this point, I was so sure of myself, I had no problem getting the manager and explaining the full story.]
Manager: [To Customer] We will happily offer you a full refund. We’re so sorry for the trouble these shoes caused you and the trouble you’re having now.
I was floored. It became a joke amongst the cashiers: “Welcome to [Store Name]! No Box, No Receipt, No Shoes, NO PROBLEM!” However, this mentality that the customer is always right IS a problem. I put my two weeks notice in the next day.
When it comes to our personal lives, we teach people how we want to be treated. If we command respect, we get respect. This should be no different when it comes to our business. There is a clear way to offer customers excellent service without sacrificing or degrading our own businesses because accepting this type of behavior in our business will only cause repeat offenses or worse.
Having clearly defined rules and outlined guidelines is the first step in prevention. Transparency is key, and more-so, accepting when we are wrong is an absolute must. Most disgruntled customers get to that point because they are not feeling heard. Taking the time to address their needs and refocus on policies by explaining why those policies were originally in place will help diffuse anger. If there is no rhyme or reason for why certain policies exist in your business, this is a good point for business self-reflection – If a customer were to question your policies and practices, do you have a valid justification for your actions and/or ideologies?
But what if prevention is not enough? What if you still have a customer, like the one from my teenage job, who goes out of his way to abuse policy? The fact remains that the customer is wrong. Not because we can’t make exceptions, but because the manager made the situation wrong the minute she villanized the employee, especially in front of the customer. When you have unhappy employees, you have unhappy customers, and the fastest way to get unhappy employees is to make them feel disrespected. At that moment, the manager had two choices: The customer (who is not likely to be a returning customer, and if he was, likely to do something similar in the future), or the employee (who was keeping the company’s best interest and policy intact).
Customers, especially repeat offenders, who drain your emotional energy, your time, and cause you undue stress because of their outlandish demands are just not worth the bottom line in the end. What it costs to keep a customer with such boorish or gauche practices prevents you from focusing time, energy, and money on laudable customers who will bring in profits and make work fulfilling. Sometimes, a break-up is absolutely necessary.
In a world of social media and viral reviews, sometimes we feel we need to repress our value systems, but we cannot allow fear mongering to take over best business practices. If a customer does not accept your “no” and chooses to blast it everywhere he/she can, this is where you need to take your deep breath of professionalism and publicly respond with: “We’re so sorry we were unable to accommodate your request, but as per our published policy which can be found on our website, this practice is for the safety and satisfaction of all of our clients.” A few negative reviews against a flood of many positive reviews will actually breed authenticity instead of negativity. Just keep focusing on the good and respond to your positive clients with thanks and gratitude.