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“Discerning” customers are not “difficult”

Annoyed customer copyFrom time to time, seminar participants ask me, “What’s the best way to deal with difficult customers?”

My standard answer is: “They’re only difficult if you’ve labeled them that way.”

I prefer the adjective “discerning” in place of “difficult.” Consider the definitions of each:

Discerning: noting differences or distinctions; exhibiting keen insight and good judgment; perceptive

Difficult: hard to please or satisfy

Oftentimes, when customers complain it’s because their expectations were not met. This is not an indication that they are hard to please. It’s a signal that they have noted a difference between what they originally expected and what they ultimately received.

Too often, employees go on the defense in these situations. You can see it their faces and their body movements. Their smiles fade and they may fold their arms. As they begin to speak, the tone of their voice becomes a bit more serious—even condescending as they retreat to the safety of “policy” and “terms and conditions.”

I once observed a visibly disappointed customer at Office Depot. He was upset because, in the middle of processing his order, an employee in the print center had left for several minutes to assist a customer in another part of the store. Eventually, he was approached by a store supervisor.

This customer wasn’t hard to please. He simply noted a difference between what he originally expected (timely fulfillment of his print order) and what he ultimately received (an unexpected delay without explanation).

I observe these confrontations on occasion and am always pleased when employees are willing to let the customer vent and they take the time to really listen for understanding of the customer’s problem. More often than not, customers simply want to be heard and have their complaints be acknowledged and validated.

A great technique for employees to demonstrate that they fully understood the customer’s complaint is to paraphrase (not parrot) the facts and feelings they heard while the customer vented. An apology may also be in order, whether or not the employee was at fault.

For example, the Office Depot supervisor who approached the customer could respond, “I apologize that you had to wait while Mark assisted another customer. It’s frustrating when there’s no communication about how long the wait will be.”

The supervisor could then choose to complete the print job personally and, perhaps, discount the order to compensate for the unexpected delay.

Upon completion, the supervisor should reinforce her earlier apology and make the customer aware of the discount applied to the order. Then, she should express appreciation for the feedback by saying something like, “My name’s Laura. I’m a supervisor and will share your experience with the entire team in order to improve our responsiveness and communication in the future.”

While it’s true that some customers are more discerning than others, this does not mean these customers are “difficult.” These customers do, however, present unique opportunities for employees to heighten their sense of urgency, attention to detail, and follow-up in the pursuit of exceptional customer service.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

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Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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