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Customer relations: What is it and how not to blow it?

Over my decades as service department manager at new car dealerships I learned how to be most effective when dealing with a somewhat hostile situation. That goes for employees as well as customers. During my years in that position, there were several CR classes taught by Ford Motor company, but the best of the best was the Dale Carnegie courses I took.

While managing the service department at Mercedes-Benz in Coral Gables, we had a young mechanic who was very good, but very hot-headed. Whenever something didn’t go his way, he’d go back to his work area and start slamming thing around. Most notably, he’d throw his tools in the box intentionally making as much nose as possible, so that everyone would know he was pissed. (He did that all the time, so I was told.)

The fist time I experienced that, I waited for him to calm down and walked over and asked: Have you ever been in a store when a customer was yelling at the clerk making a big scene about something? He said yes.  I then asked: Who looked like the jerk in that situation, the clerk or the customer?  He stopped for a minute and said: The customer.  He smiled and I said, you know when you act like you just did, we here in the service department aren’t the ones who look foolish.  He thanked me and never did that again.

Obviously, you can’t do that to your customers who might be irate, but you can easily defuse the situation by listening until they have exhausted their argument and proceed from there to help them.

Whether or not the customer is irate, there are some words you should never use.  The ultimate goal is to retain the person as a loyal customer. You don’t want them running around bad-mouthing your business.  Your goal is to make them happy, and that doesn’t take giving them everything. It takes making them feel important. Tell them you’re sorry and you want to make it right. Ask them what that will take.  Usually, it’s not as much as you think. Most people are reasonable when they realize you really want to help.

Now here’s the thing, when you do get to the point of making an adjustment, NEVER use the word BUT. Example: I’m going to adjust your bill for that amount, BUT just this one time, or BUT, we did extra work you don’t know about, or BUT you don't realize...., or BUT anything.  Either give them the adjustment with a smile or just go ahead and run them off without doing anything.  When you add the word BUT, you imply that you’re doing it just to get them to go away.  You see, when you attach anything to whatever it is that you’re doing for the customer, you devalue your effort.

You wouldn’t want to hear this: Here’s your birthday gift, BUT I really didn’t want to give you one.  That is exactly what you are saying to a customer when you add a caveat to your offer of settlement by using the word BUT.

This happened to me the other day.  I felt the A/C repair bill was ridiculous.  I told the company and got a call from the owner.  He started in on how much work it was (like I was stupid and didn’t know).  I asked if he was going to adjust the bill or not, I already know what's involved in the repair and the bill was excessive by a large amount.  He started: Well you’re a good customer so I’ll adjust the bill, BUT…. I interrupted and said: NO BUTs, either yes or no with a smile. He said yes and I said thank you.  He doesn’t know how close he came to hearing: I think it’s time to find another company to take care of the 21 central air conditioners I own in the area.

Words matter!  The bottom line is this: Defuse the situation by letting the customer speak without interruption until they are finished telling their side of the story. Ask them what it will take to make them happy.  Give them what they want WITH A SMILE. Tell them you value their business and to feel free to contact you anytime. If you don't, you probably just lost a customer and gained a lot of bad advertising.

When I was managing the service department at Miami Lincoln Mercury, I never wanted a customer to leave unhappy.  In fact I had a 3 foot x 8 foot sign painted and hung at the service department entrance.  It stated:

If you are unhappy with this dealership for any reason,

before you leave I want to know.

Your Service Manager,

Joe Bottieri

When that sign went up my job got very easy. Surprisingly, since customers knew who to look for if they were unhappy, every employee made sure to do their job to the best of their ability. Other service managers who heard about my sign thought I was nuts, especially since I was asking to hear from any unhappy customer regardless of what department they were unhappy with.  I meant what the sign said and knew it would get the attention of all the employees in all the departments.  The results were amazing, and my boss was extremely happy.  That sign forced everyone to be more conscious of how they treated customers. Additionally, it was a great tool for the sales department. Can you image the sales people taking their potential buyers out to the service drive to show them; there in writing was a customer relations pledge unheard of before then?

It's too bad that so many people are afraid to deal with an unhappy customer. I guess they take it personally.  I never saw it that way. You have to understand that it's not personal. The customer isn't angy with you.  They are either unhappy with the product or the price.  Just fix it - that's all they want.

To me, it was a great accomplishment to work with an irate customer and turn that person into a faithful happy customer.  All it takes is to have a good attitude and listen; and really mean it when you say you are sorry and will do all you can to solve the problem. (Compassion) You have to mean it! Really mean it! And that takes a good positive attitude.

Joe Bottieri

Customer Relations - Happy Customers

Adopting one animal won't change the world, but it will change the world for that one animal.

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