Feb One of the most common complaints I hear from small business owners and managers is they spend most of their time putting out fires. My advice - Stop it! If I may continue with this beloved metaphor, it's time to get out of the fire extinguishing business and into the fire prevention business.
Recently, at one of my own stores, we experienced a customer coming in with a challenge that might be considered a "fire". A customer came in with a framed picture to return. Fine, we have a very liberal return policy, so no problem, right? Well the customer didn't have a receipt - no problem, we can figure out what it was and what it sold for, when did she buy it? Actually she didn't but it, but says her boy friend bought it about three years ago. That begs for a little more info, don't you think? No, the item has nothing wrong with it, they used it, enjoyed it, agreed it was perfect in every way, somehow managed to damage the piece over the years, and agreed it now has too many nicks and scratches for us to resell it. Now they want to argue that it was $169, not the $129 our records show it was a few years ago. Really? Is the customer always right? Can the front line staff handle this matter while it's still just a conversation and before it becomes a complaint?
Now when I hear from owners and managers of retail or service businesses, they are not complaining about over-demanding customers, but about their staff who cannot figure out how to handle these situations on their own. The owner should not have to come treat it like a 'fire". This is not a fire, it is just a spark and properly trained front line staff should be able to extinguish it before it catches on fire.
I can see several business owner friends rolling their eyes right now - I can see you right through this paper you know! You have a business to work on, so you don't have time to handle every customer situation. You still want to keep as many customers happy as you can, so what do you do? You create a system - not a policy. A policy is a one-size-fits-all statement that annoys the customer to no end and separates the employee from the company. As a defense mechanism, employees tends to blame the company for the policy they are required to quote. While you're worrying about an unhappy customer telling other people, you now have employees saying bad things about you!
Trade in your policies for systems. A system is a process any employee can use to create their own solution. Maybe an agenda item for your weekly staff meeting (remember those?) could be training on these matters. Staff meetings should be about fire prevention. You sit with your staff and go over the scenario. You come up with a strategic thinking process that would have led to an acceptable result. Entrepreneurs were born to think this way - your staff probably was not. They bring other perspectives and value to the table, but in this area, you have to teach them. Script a list of questions to ask customers, teach them to communicate instead of getting flustered and nervous. They need to know you have their back and they won't get in trouble for trying to help a customer. The customer in not always right. In fact, they're seldom right when they're acting like pyromaniacs (a good metaphor never ends, does it). The notion about the customer is always right is meant to be about the broader market in general, not every unhappy person on earth who wants to abuse your staff to get free things from you. This notion has been so abused by customers, it's insulting and debilitating to your staff. Rather than right versus wrong, let's say your customers and your staff are human beings who equally deserve respect, honest communication and a fair resolution. Fair to the customer, but the customer needs to understand solutions need to be fair to your business as well. Only honest, assertive (not aggressive, but professional and assertive) communication will allow this to happen. Once you've taught assertive communication skills to your staff, and practiced it and let them role play and practice on you and each other, they'll be ready to practice on live customers. They'll need to create a habit of following a logical, step by step process for handling situations. Your local entreprenologist can help you create such a system and communication training program if that's outside your comfort zone.
Stop putting out fires. Every time a new fires pops up, put it out and vow that this is the last time you are putting out that particular fire. Create a prevention system for each fire as they happen and you'll be spending more time working on your business and less time working in your business. You'll have more fun, make more money and have happier staff and customers.