Working With the General Public: Tips & Techniques
How To Keep Good Customers
I began working when I was 15 years old. Like most teens, I started working in the food industry, making pizzas. For my second job I was a barista at a local coffee house. I loved the work and I could handle the responsibility. However, I was not prepared for working with the general public. Since my teenage years, I have experienced employment as a salesperson in retail, a teacher interacting with students and parents, a stable hand caring for expensive show horses, a site manager for an upscale event planning company, a florist designing arrangements for customer’s specific needs, a waitress at a busy restaurant, a professional wedding photographer, a manager of a small bookstore, a secretary, a mural artist working in people’s homes, a check out girl at a grocery store, and a professional dog groomer. I have always worked hard and I have always enjoyed my jobs. I have been privileged enough to do so many of the things I love. My jobs have allowed me to build long-lasting customer relations and find new friends. In other words, I have dealt with the general public on various levels and with various incomes. I have seen people transform from general public status to valued customer status. Many times I have traded stories with other hard working people, and they often express their inability to cope with some of their customers, especially the difficult ones. At the request of my coworkers, I am sharing methods I have learned from my experiences. I will discuss coping skills, ideas and techniques I use every time I interact with a customer.
Step one: you are there for the customer and you initiate their good experience with your professional approach. I have almost always worked in a service industry. This means I am responsible for providing my customers with a service. The first thing I always remember is that I, myself, am a customer almost everyday. How do I like to be treated? When I see a new face walk through our door, I leap into action. I smile, I greet them warmly, I make eye contact (very important!) and I always end my greeting with an open-ended line, such as, “What can I do for you today?” I know it sounds clichéd, but it is necessary to create this generic dialogue if you want to continue a legitimate one later. You may be the only person who says a kind word to that patron all day. Your customers have entire lives about which you know nothing, unless they volunteer to tell you. Never be nosy. People are jaded, they always have a story, and they are often stressed. If they seem ill or grouchy, there is always a very good reason – you just don’t know the reason. Do not turn a customer’s attitude into a personal affront. Influence them with your optimism. If you love your job, this is a very easy practice to adopt. If you do not love your job do not allow your customers to see that! It always makes me uncomfortable, as a consumer, to listen to an employee gripe and complain about the very place where I am spending my money. It’s rude and it’s bad business. A first impression is imperative in the business world, so take whatever steps are necessary to ensure customers will be comfortable when they walk through your door. Be polite and patient.
Step two in customer relations involves listening. Everyone in this world needs to be validated on some level at some time, if not all the time. Validate your client by closing your mouth and listening to theirs. Make eye contact. I learned the importance of listening from my mother’s bad experiences with doctors. She had Lupus, but she was continuously misdiagnosed because her doctors wouldn’t listen to her! They didn’t make eye contact. They didn’t allow her to finish before they assumed her diagnosis. They did not answer her questions. Finally, she found a doctor that listened to her and allowed her to ask questions. He answered her questions, properly diagnosed her disease, and ultimately saved her life. You may not save lives, but you do affect them. I cannot count the number of times a client has had something personal they needed to share. Humans need to be heard and need to know they’re not alone. It’s our nature. Sure, Aunt Peggy’s funeral has nothing to do with how I groom her niece’s poodle, but human nature dictates that a relationship is being formed through such sharing and thus trust is built between me and my client. I have even made notes on a client’s file, recording topics of conversation. When the client returns a month later, I will sometimes inquire about a surgery, or ask about a situation they shared prior. People are always flattered when you remember the details of their last visit. It makes them feel important. It also makes them feel that they have your undivided attention. This experience leads the customer to a feeling of loyalty and trust, which rewards you with a happy repeat customer. I even have a mental list I call my “common grounds” list. I use it at work, in public, at parties and events. Utilize conversation with your client and find something you both have in common. (Some key common topics are always pets, children, weather, or books.) When appropriate, learn your customer’s names and call them by name when they walk through the door. And if I need to remind you that compliments are scarce these days, change that fact by doling out sincere compliments to your patrons. Do not dominate the conversation. Never interrupt a client while they are speaking, and never talk “at” a client. Whenever an employee talks down to me as though I am an idiot, my business with them is done. No matter how ridiculous a client’s question may sound, answer your client with a sense of dignity and seriousness.
ABOVE AND BEYOND
Step three involves the actual work you do. Always go above and beyond when it comes to your work. Your customers will notice. For example, our grooming clients bring their dogs in for a bath. A bath is typically $12. What our customers love is that for their $12, they get more than a bath! They get a bath, conditioning treatment, bow or a bandana, and a finishing spray. Oh, and we clean out the dog’s ears. These few extra touches – which take mere minutes to perform - cause our customers to return again and again – and even send us more customers! Did I mention tips? In many instances, a customer is willing to tip when they feel they have received excellent service. So many companies now employ individuals who perform the bare minimum required so they can get a paycheck at the end of the week. Most of us have been on the wrong end of those companies. Worse yet, they do not care to hear and validate your complaints. This leads me to step four.
Every company or business gets complaints. It is inevitable. Know this: at some point in time there will be complaints, and some will concern you or the work you do. Be ready. It is extremely important to understand the complaint and ask specific questions. Many times, the complaint is derived from a misunderstanding or simple miscommunication. In these cases, a talk with the client resolves any issues. Do not be afraid to call your clients and talk to them. Take accountability for any misunderstandings on your part. Do not accuse the client of anything – you may make suggestions for future situations, but do so with grace and include yourself in those suggestions. If an error has been made on your part, accept accountability. This world is already full of people who refuse to accept accountability for the things they do; don’t be another one. I have experienced a calming effect in my clients when they hear the words, “I am very sorry this happened – I take responsibility for this and I would love to have an opportunity to fix this / make this up / give you a free groom…” These customers are expecting a fight and they come in with their proverbial fists raised. When you accept that responsibility with grace and understanding, they see they do not have to fight for their grievance. To me, it has always been a social red flag to see so many people feel they have to be aggressive in order to have their complaints recognized, much less resolved. Businesses should be bending over backwards to keep clients happy. Sadly, this behavior has become a novelty at best. Make sure your business does not fall the way of the inconsiderate. Hear the complaints, address those complaints, and resolve the complaints. If you have done everything you can to please a customer and you still lose them, remember that you cannot control other people. Let them go. Sometimes, they return. When they do, treat them with the same love you treat everyone else. We all make mistakes. It is how we handle our mistake that sets us apart.
I am going to address the Troublemaker. Every business, especially service industries, encounter what I call the Troublemaker. It is obvious this person was unhappy before they ever met you. These particular clients are a challenge. I have a secret weapon. Let me cite an example. We had a client who was a very negative personality and was never satisfied. This person was always complaining about other people and other businesses. I pegged her the day she walked through my door. I treated her like everyone else, but when the time arrived for me to hear how dissatisfied she was with my service, I offered to change aspects of her dog’s groom so she would be satisfied. This is not what she wanted, although it would have resolved her complaint. She now demanded a free groom. Here we go. No. I gave her excellent service. I resolved her complaint. I was gracious and loving and kind. I treated her with respect. When she shouted at me, I was completely unfazed. I did not react in any manner. She was then confused. This is the key to diffusing Troublemakers. For whatever reason, these individuals have made a lifestyle out of negativity and complaining. They learned along the way that if they are wretched enough, they might get something for free just so people can get rid of them. They have learned that their awful behavior spawns a reaction in those around them, and they can then manipulate those reactions. Not me. I smiled and silently watched her rant. I made eye contact. Do not react to their behavior or their language. When Troublemakers have no reaction, they lose strategy. I remained calm and attentive, which ultimately made her look foolish. She reluctantly paid for her groom, and later complained to others we had given her terrible service. Remember: you can’t control other people. She forgot one thing: no one else liked her either. Everywhere she went she left a trail of malice. Everyone knew she was a Troublemaker. The good news: she took up a whole 35 minutes of my work week. In other words, she didn’t have enough time to be a challenge for long. Her behavior was temporary.
When you work with clients, you represent your business. Do you know the teller’s name at your bank? Do you know the name of your hairdresser? Would you recognize her at the grocery? My clients recognize me in public on days when my own children would barely be able to recognize me. For me, this is a good sign. While it is true that some people are much more observant than others, it makes me feel good when clients recognize me and initiate a conversation. I must be doing something right. I still have students from my years of teaching who run over to give me hugs. I don’t remember all their names, but they remember mine. I have grooming clients who have begged me to come to their houses for a cup of coffee, or take me to lunch. It is my belief that the attention paid to each client’s needs and the positive, professional affect I have working for them creates a bond. After all, I still remember my favorite teachers, and I remember the names of my favorite cashiers. It takes so little to be a positive effect in someone’s life. You may encounter a client for 15 minutes out of an entire week, but it could be the best 15 minutes they experienced in the business world. Growing and improving as a person enhances your ability to provide excellent customer service and build relationships. Use common sense and know everyone deserves to be heard. Do good work and adopt a good attitude. Be thankful and try to find reasons to be optimistic. Be accountable when necessary. Be gracious. You never know just how you affect people. Just know that you will affect them. Make it good.