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In the light of United Airlines public relations nightmare, we wanted to share with you our perspective on how to handle difficult situations with customers. Many people, especially customers, remember the old adage: The customer is always right.

The phrase “The customer is always right” was originally coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London, and is typically used by businesses to convince customers that they will get good service at this company andconvince employees to give customers good service.

In recent years, there have been articles and a belief that is adage is wrong, mostly because it makes employees unhappy, there are certain customers you don't want and it allows customers to abuse employees. While those are all interesting points, Disney has the best customer service in the world. Period. No questions asked. That's just one reason it's the, "Happiest Place on Earth." 

You see Disney looks at everyone, in a whole organization, which includes its guests. In fact, they believe that their "cast members" should foster a relationship with their guests, who are an important part of their organization. This is key - the guest is an important part of the organization. As public relations consultants, we help our clients tell their story to their brand loyalists. We also help keep their brand in a positive light to build more loyalty, but that has to start internally. Training is a huge part of this success. While the customer may not always be right, they have empower employees with the training to alleviate and defuse the situation. 

On a daily basis, we see customer feedback for our clients - a lot of time service is the biggest issues. Positive feedback talks about how accommodating, polite, and attentive service was. Constructive feedback also focuses on service - how staff needs better training, needs to know and understand policies, be more attentive and pay attention to details. These factors are all in the training. As an employer or organization, you have to provide your employees with expectations. Those expectations should be consistently produced by every employee from the bottom to the top. 

With the invention of the internet, social media, online review sites, etc. our communications has changed. It's an unintended consequence of our ever evolving world. Here are some tips to keep your PR on a positive level, not a crisis management level.

  1. Train your employees. Provide them with all of the company policies that relate to customers. This allows your employee to explain the policy to the customer instead of saying, "That's our policy..." or "There's nothing I can do..." Customers generally are happier if someone explains the policy to them. i.e., A family goes to a restaurant that has live music. At 9pm they don't allow guest under the age of 21. Instead of saying, "Sorry, no kids. It's our policy," if an employee knows that the policy is no one under the age of 21, because the kitchen is closed and local/state laws don't allow us to admit minors when food isn't being served - they can explain that to the customer. While the customer may not be happy - they now know the policy and reasoning behind it. You won't get negative backlash, and likely won't get a negative review on Yelp. 
  2. Empower your employees. Give employees some flexibility to make the situation right. I took my family to a BBQ restaurant the other night. We got the kids mac and cheese, because, well, they love mac and cheese. However, they did not like this mac and cheese. The waitress came back to check on us and we ordered some fries for the kids. She asked the kids how the mac and cheese was, they responded politely and said, "it's okay.' She said, "Not a big fan?" They replied, "Not really." When we got our check, she had comped us the fries. When I questioned why the fries were comped, she said, "They would have ordered fries if they knew they didn't like our mac and cheese." Turns out the manager at the place allows the employees flexibility to handle those type of situations. 
  3. Have an in-person conversation. We all like to avoid difficult conversations; however, using electronic means usually makes the situation worse. If someone provides your organization with negative feedback do your best to have an in-person conversation. Start off by acknowledging their feedback. Invite them to come back in and speak with you directly. In cases where an employee was named, have that employee be present for the meeting. Remind the employee they are there to learn, and that they are not in trouble, but that they should allow you to do most of the speaking. When the customer comes in, bring them to a quite place and thank them for taking the time to come speak with you. Listen to them. Give them your full attention - don't take notes. If you are confused, always reply with things like, "I hear you saying..., is that correct?" Never raise your voice to the customer. Always explain policies to them in a clear, concise and consistent way. Remember you're not obligated to provide them anything further - that is your decision. Never reprimand an employee in front of the customer or other employees. 
  4. Offset the problem. Often people complain because they want to be compensated for something. Look for a consideration to offset the issue. You're not obligated to provide the guest anything; however, a little gratitude goes a long way. The guest/customer did make the decision to patronize your business. Acknowledgement of them as a valued customer goes a long way.
  5. Don't say no. There are times when a customer/guest is flat out wrong. Don't make a big deal, or tell them they are wrong. Instead of saying no, give them an alternative solution. i.e., A customer bought a ticket for an event you have. Everywhere event tickets are sold clearly indicated no refunds within 14 days. They come in 10 days before the event and want a refund. Instead of telling them, "No. Our policy says no refunds within 14 days, the event is in 10 days. There is nothing I can do." Offer up an option. "While our policy does indicate no refunds within 14 days of the event. Let me see what I can do. While we're not able to issue a refund for this event, I can give you a credit for a future event. Would that work for you?" 

While there are several options of ways to handle issues, these are a few steps. We suggest that you look at ways to handle difficult conversations and situations. There are several books and even courses that cover these subject. 

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