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Lessons in Leadership

The grumpy customer

Should customers ever be fired?

By Robert L. Bailey

"This guy is such a pain in the fanny! I'm going to tell him to do business elsewhere! He does nothing but complain! I never want to see him again! Good riddance!"

Although these words are a little more mild than some I heard a few days ago, it appropriately summarizes the gist of the conversation—a conversation I've had with many agents through the years.

Yes, it may be acceptable to fire a high-maintenance customer. But don't do it just yet. Think it through first. This customer may have a critically important message that's worth its weight in gold.

I have defended grumpy customers for many years. They may be our most valuable assets. Why? Because they are generally our best friends. They are our best friends because they care. They care about our agencies, our companies, and our people. They want us to survive and prosper. But they know we will not succeed if our products or services are lacking in some way. As a result, they feel an obligation to tell us about it.

Gripes or helpful input?

Grumpy customers have told us when a staff member is rude or uncaring. Although this didn't necessarily result in the employee's being fired, it did give us an opportunity to remind the employee of the importance of building good relationships with all customers.

Grumpy customers have told us when telephone calls were not returned promptly. That has resulted in our putting procedures in place to assure that calls are given the attention they deserve.

Grumpy customers have told us when claim service did not measure up. As a result, we could take appropriate action and retrain a specific claims person, or improve inefficient procedures.

Grumpy customers have told us when competitors are providing broader coverages. That reminder has encouraged us to speed up the product development phase of our operation.

Grumpy customers have told us when prices are out of line. Sometimes downward adjustments are possible. If not, we have an opportunity to explain that we provide greater value, even though not necessarily the lowest price.

Grumpy customers have told us when we can do better. This information is more valuable, and certainly more valid, than information gathered from any other source, including that gathered from professional research firms.

It is said that consultants borrow your pencil, write down what you tell them, and then charge you a lot of money for the information you provided. That's not far from the truth. Instead, why not listen to the most helpful source of information—your current customers. Their first-hand experiences are invaluable.

Kindness and compassion rank at the top of the benefits we offer.

When corrective action is taken following a complaint from a grumpy customer, that customer becomes a life-long friend—and a life-long customer. "They listened to me. They took action," the customer will say. "I want to do business with a company or agency that positively responds to my concerns." In this era of big, impersonal companies—where customers tend to be numbers, and where it's unusual to be able to get through the phone menu and talk to a real live human being—a prompt and positive response to a customer concern will seal the sale for a lifetime.

Silence isn't golden

The customer about whom you should be more concerned is the customer who never complains. He or she takes everything in stride, fumes in private, and moves to a competitor without giving you an opportunity to correct the situation. The majority of your customers fall in this category.

This is why every contact with every customer should include the questions: "What do you like about doing business with us? Is there anything you dislike about doing business with us? Is there anything we can do better?"

You want to create an environment in which customers will tell you how to improve rather than to move to a competitor without giving you an opportunity to take corrective action.

Now back our initial thought: firing a high-maintenance customer.

If that customer is impossible to please and is costing you so much to service that you can never generate a profit, it may be appropriate to suggest that another agency or company will be able to do a better job for this particular client. Then help the customer make the transition. Help make the switch a painless and positive experience. Angry customers can cause too much damage.

If a customer tells two people about bad service they experienced, and the next day each of those two people tell two other people, and the next day those two people tell two more people, how many people would be reached in 30 days? The answer is 536,870,912. There are a little more than 300 million people in the United States. That means if two people tell two people, etc., you would reach nearly every man, woman and child in the United States twice in just 30 days.

The principle of two people telling two people is the primary reason businesses fail. And it's the primary reason businesses succeed.

Negative experiences generate more word of mouth than do positive experiences. When something bad happens, we are more inclined to e-mail our complete address book, or tell our story on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or other social media. "These people are bums. Don't ever do business with them." The downside can be disastrous.

Positive experiences, on the other hand, are more likely to be shared when someone asks, "Do you know a good insurance agency I should do business with?"

Therefore, when we fire a customer, we do it gently. It must be done in such a way the customer thinks you're doing him or her a favor. You want to avoid the 536,870,912 phenomenon.

When that grumpy customer gets under your skin now and then, rather than hiding under the desk to avoid an unpleasant discussion, ask yourself, "Is there a message here that is important to us?"

I'm convinced. Grumpy customers can be our best friends. They often have a compelling message to which we should be listening. Grumpy customers provide an authoritative consulting service that's absolutely free.


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