Cleaning & Restoration Association News

Seeking First To Understand

October 14, 2003
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"When angry, count to ten before you speak. If you are very angry, count to one hundred."
Thomas Jefferson

Road rage. Work-place massacres. Marital fights escalating to violence. Many feel that our society is descending into an emotional pressure cooker filled with suspicion, fear and, all too often, outright hostility. My guess is you have seen these changes mirrored in your customer's attitudes toward you and the finished product you provide. Speaking frankly, customers today are both more distrustful and discriminating than ever before.

For years now, this column has focused on how to deal with an entirely normal customer emotion - the fear of having a stranger working in his or her home. Success in the residential cleaning industry is largely determined on how well you and your employees develop a trusting professional relationship with the homeowner.

And yet, while you should build your business success on your customers' emotions, never, ever run your business emotionally. All too often we respond in kind to the negative emotions of our customers. Even worse, we don't give our employees the emotional tools to understand the traumatized emotional universe that our customers live in.

Nowhere is this emotional understanding more important than when dealing with an unhappy, complaining customer. Of course, the best way to deal with complaints is to never let them happen in the first place. But even after giving homeowners superb service and even better cleaning, you may get hit with the emotional shrapnel of other problems in their lives and face a complaint. It is all too easy to "get down in the mud" with the customer and viciously fight back.

You must resist the normal impulse to defend yourself or, even worse, reply in kind to a nasty customer. Why? Because if you can win over an unhappy, complaining customer, many times they will go on to become what I call a "Turbo Cheerleader." These folks will be so surprised to find someone who actually responded to their complaints that they will display an almost religious fervor in promoting your company.

Most business owners understand this concept of taking the emotional high road and pleasing the customer at all costs. But sometimes employees take a complaint or an unhappy customer as a personal attack, and things can get real ugly real fast. Here is the three-step system I used with my employees to help them make Turbo Cheerleaders out of an unhappy customer, and to avoid getting angry themselves.

Seek First to Understand
Think back to the last time you complained about anything. How was your complaint received? My guess is with defensiveness, apathy and maybe even outright hostility. It isn't easy to complain. So for even the toughest, most battle-hardened customer to make a complaint, they must first of all get up a "big head of steam," since they expect to meet a lot of resistance on your part. This "all-steamed-up" emotional state of the customer can come across as anger directed at you, which isn't the case. Therefore avoid taking it personally.

All too often, front-line employees personalize the customer's attack and feel the need to defend themselves or the company. But once your staff understands the "big head of steam" concept, there is no need to go on the defensive.

Remember too that your customer's agitation comes from more than the fear of being rejected or ignored. Part of "seeking first to understand" recognizes that today's customers are under many pressures. In addition to the customer's "anticipated rejection" syndrome, they may be under other personal pressures you are unaware of. Your perceived customer service lapse may be the straw that broke the camel's back (Note: This is especially true with your traumatized and beat-up-on restoration clients.).

Pity This Poor Individual
Now that you have come to truly understand the myriad pressures in your customer's life, you certainly should feel sorry for them. And if they are behaving badly, all the more reason for pity. No one feels good about losing their self-control and treating an individual poorly. Sooner or later your customer will probably feel some sense of shame over how they are treating you or your workers. Even if they never do feel contrite, think about the emotional state they are in as they scream at you, not to mention the state of their blood pressure. All in all, a good candidate for compassion on your part.

"Forgive" the Customer
Now that you truly understand the irate customer's mental and emotional anguish, you realize they aren't really in their right mind. So while it is never pleasant to endure verbal abuse or attacks on your professional competence or self-worth as a person, always stay on the high road. This proactive response will make you feel very good about both your self-control and professionalism. You also very likely will make a Turbo Cheerleader that will be a loyal advocate of both you and your company for years to come!

Next month, "To Your Success" will cover a nine-step program of "emotional judo" that will convert almost any angry client into a surprised and delighted Cheerleader.

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