Everyone loves to complain about customer service, and over the years, businesses have given the public plenty of reasons to gripe with automated phone service, hidden fees and shoddy workmanship. But the customer isn't always right. Just ask Pat Affenito, of Sturbridge, Mass., who has worked in the restaurant and hotel industry for 20 years and has met her share of ill-mannered, boorish customers.
"I've had to call the police at 1 a.m. I've had customers walk out on bills. I've had antiques stolen from the lobby. I've had customers yell at me and face me down," Affenito says. "I've had customers try to extort money and freebies, too."
She adds that she has encountered many good-hearted guests, "but the crazy ones always stand out."
Which begs the question: What if you're one of the good ones? You're a nice, normal person who simply has a legitimate complaint with a company, and you want to resolve everything in your favor without popping a vessel or winding up in jail for assaulting the customer service manager? Try the following.
Don't go all social media on your prey just yet. Yes, there are plenty of stories of infuriated customers who take to Facebook and Twitter to complain and get what they want, and virtually everyone interviewed for this article agrees that's a perfectly reasonable route to take - provided you first try the traditional channels. That is, call a customer service person on the phone, send an email or walk into the establishment if that's feasible.
"Go to Twitter or Facebook only when you are not getting service; it's not fair to bash a company before they even know you're upset," says Scott Swift, vice president of customer information at Hunter Douglas Inc., a New York-based company that is the leading manufacturer of custom window treatments throughout North America. Swift works out of Broomfield, Colo., and if a problem can't be resolved through the normal customer service channels, it comes to him. While he has encountered many reasonable customers, he would like the anger-prone ones to realize that the customer service department doesn't intend to be the antagonist in their life story. "We're nice people who solve problems for a living - give us a chance," Swift says.
Affenito echoes a similar sentiment, saying she is always disappointed when she reads a rotten review about her place of work on a travel website and wonders why the customer didn't come to her when something could have been done.
"Don't wait until it's too late for a problem to be fixed before you complain. That's not fair to anyone," she says. "Most times, a business can offer you something: a different room, someone to fix the problem, a new meal, a gift certificate. Give them a chance to make it right. If the complaint is held too long, then you just stew and get mad and the business can't make it right."
And a phone tip for any business you're about to call with a complaint: Call when you think few other people will be calling, Swift says.
He says Hunter Douglas' peak call times are Monday mornings and lunch time, which is a busy time for many businesses. He explains that if you call when the customer service people aren't juggling multiple lines, they'll have more time to focus on you, which may allow for a faster, more beneficial outcome.
Always keep your anger in check. You may be angry, but the person answering your call or reading your email probably has nothing to do with your dilemma. They're probably the go-between between you and the employee who can make things right again for you. And keep in mind that they may well be making 12 bucks an hour, if that. Sounding as if you're a few seconds away from turning into a homicidal maniac may make you feel better, but you're just ruining someone's day.
You also aren't helping your cause. In the last month alone, a Michigan woman made news for trashing a cellphone store after she couldn't get a refund; a customer threw change in a female employee's face at a Dunkin' Donuts in Arlington, Mass.; a customer threatened to stab a manager in a disagreement over returned merchandise in Salem, N.H.; and the Wyandotte County commissioner allegedly got into an argument at Legoland in Kansas City over a heated disagreement about coupons and the price of admission - heated enough that the police were called in and arrested the customer.
Even if all the customers had legitimate grievances, assuming their behavior is as accurate as reported, nobody's going to be on their side now. Least of all, the employees at those businesses.
"After 25 years of being yelled at, insulted and called names I'm not familiar with, I'm more likely to help consumers who act like a human being," Swift says, who recommends just presenting the facts, and keeping emotion out of it when filing a complaint.
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Shep Hyken, a motivational speaker whose specialty is customer service and author of "Amaze Every Customer Every Time," concurs with Swift. He suggests being polite - even if you're actually steamed. "Don't yell, regardless of how upset you might be. It can only make an already tenuous situation worse," Hyken says.
If you're having trouble controlling your anger, and it's impossible to hide, then be upfront about it, says Marilyn Suttle, who co-authored "Who's Your Gladys?" - a business book about turning one's most difficult customer into a fan. Suttle suggests saying something along the lines of: "I want to let you know that I'm really upset right now, and it has nothing to do with you personally."
Giving a warning like that "helps put the services staff on alert that there's a problem without causing them to get defensive," Suttle says. And if your customer service representative is defensive, you've just started a war, a war that you may not win. And remember, you want to win.
Flattery will get you everywhere. Really, the secret to getting good customer service is to be nice and compliment whoever you're talking to, according to Suttle.
Suttle suggests empathizing with whomever you're trying to get help from. Yes, it may take some Oscar-caliber acting if you truly feel you've been wronged because your luggage is lost or your sports car broke down a few miles away from the lot, but as Suttle says, if you say something like, "I imagine you've had to deal with long lines of complaining customers all day," instantly, the customer service person will see you as an ally, and not the enemy.
But bring on the toast because Suttle recommends really buttering people up. She suggests the phrasing: "I'm struggling here, and I really need a hero. I'd so appreciate you if you'd take this on for me."
Granted, you may want to insert your own version of dialogue for Suttle's. If you're a Merchant Marine who bench presses 300, and you really just want a fee removed, Suttle's flowery language may not quite work.
And true, you can risk laying it on too thick and come off as insincere, but Suttle's point is an accurate one. You always want to stand out from the other customers - but in a good way - when trying to get a problem resolved. Rest assured: If an employee is turning his smartphone on you and looks ready to press "upload to YouTube," you're doing something wrong.
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