The Customer-Employee Challenge

“Statistics suggest that when customers complain, business owners and managers ought to get excited about it. The complaining customer represents a huge opportunity for more business.” – Zig Ziglar

A waiter in a restaurant forgets your order, doesn’t refill the water, and hurries you through the meal. The furniture store that just delivered your $900 dresser with a missing handle won’t waive your shipping fee to get it repaired. It takes forever to reach a real person at your insurance company, and once you finally hear a human voice, you get put on hold. As I said in ETR #1965, some companies seem to have the mindset that customer service just isn’t that important.

I must admit, I’m generally reluctant to fulfill what I consider to be my moral obligation to tell business owners when I believe they have a personnel or customer-service problem on their hands. I used to, but I gave up on it a long time ago. Too many owners have demonstrated that they are just not interested in receiving such feedback.

Example …

A few years ago, I paid an audio/video company to do some extensive work for me, and dealt primarily with the vice president of new business development. Notwithstanding his impressive title, he never once delivered work when he promised it to me. Worse, he was unresponsive to an extreme.

I finally got so fed up with the bad service I was getting that I thought I should let the owner know about it. Since he had been the one to personally solicit my business, I knew he would be concerned about the lack of follow-through on the part of one of his top people. I emphasized that he should handle the problem gently, since we were only about halfway through my project and I had a lot of money invested in it.

Apparently, there was a wide disparity between our definitions of “gently.” Wham! Immediately after the owner of the company talked to him, the vice president of new business development called to let me know, in very harsh terms, that he didn’t appreciate my “going behind his back” to complain to his boss. I didn’t bother to remind him that I had expressed my dissatisfaction directly to him on numerous occasions. Needless to say, working through the remainder of the project was very uncomfortable for both of us.

The lesson: If you’re a business owner, when a customer does you a favor by pointing out that one of your employees is not doing his job properly, don’t make the mistake of creating an employee-versus-customer battle. Be grateful to the customer, thank him for taking the time and trouble to tell you about his dissatisfaction, then approach the employee in question gently.

Meaning, tactfully point out the area or areas where you feel he needs some improvement, but leave the specific customer out of it. Why? For at least two good reasons. First, because you can count on the employee’s having his own version of the story, and that version is almost certain to cast him as an innocent victim. Which means you then have a customer-employee debacle on your hands. Second, if you intend to have an ongoing relationship with the customer, the offending employee is likely to act in ways that will drive that customer away from you by exacting retribution for “tattling” on him.

I believe that one of the reasons so many employers make this mistake is that they tend to be naive. All too often, they assume, at least subconsciously, that their employees care as much about their business as they do.

Fortunately, many employees do – at least the ones who are focused on getting ahead in life. However, the very employees who don’t treat their company’s customers with respect are the same ones who are most likely to excel at kissing up to their bosses.

How do some employees manage to get away with this kind of charade throughout their careers? Sadly, I believe it’s because the egos of many business owners simply can’t resist the verbiage of professional sycophants on their payroll. It makes them feel secure to know they are surrounded by a cadre of pit bulls who make great theater of protecting their bosses.

In fact, many bosses are addicted to the fabricated adulation of their employees. The unspoken understanding is that in exchange for treating the boss as if he were the Pope, they can count on him to stand up for the guys and gals on “his team” at all costs. All of which sounds very noble, except for the reality that it’s simply not good business. An owner cannot serve his customers effectively if he is focused on not offending his employees.

I want to emphasize that making certain that your employees are treating your customers with tender loving care does not prevent you from being respectful and loyal to those same employees. But your relationship with an employee should be based on how well he or she treats your most precious asset – your customers. Because without customers, you have nothing.

The customer must be satisfied at any cost. (And, by the way, if you happen to be an employee, this policy works in your favor too. You’ll get ahead much more quickly if you focus your efforts on pleasing your company’s customers … and having the customers tell your boss how great you are, rather than you continually telling him how great he is.)

In fact, you should look at every customer complaint not as a problem but as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with that customer.

I’ve done this a thousand times in my career by not only apologizing and thanking the customer for letting me know about his dissatisfaction, but also by doing something special for him. Almost without fail, I’ve wound up with a more loyal customer.

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