What to Do When the Customer is Wrong

what to do when the customer is wrong - small business magazine ybkbs
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By Jess Dixon

If there is one business cliche that I want to consign to the past where it belongs, it’s this: the customer is always right. 

Why? Because it’s not true. 

In fact, customers are sometimes wrong. And sometimes, they’re not just “wrong” but also rude, difficult, insulting, and even abusive. Hopefully you won’t have to tolerate this kind of customer very often but, if you run your own business, chances are you’ll come across one sooner or later. By acknowledging that customers are sometimes wrong, you can make a plan for how to do it when a difficult one does cross your path. 

I think that the worst thing you can do is to fall back on “the customer is always right” thinking. It will harm your business, your mental health, your bottom line, and – if you have employees – their trust in you. 

So what can you do instead? Here are my top tips for how to handle it when the customer is wrong. 

Aim for communication first

When someone is upset or angry, it can be easy to fall into one of two traps: placating, or getting defensive. Both are mistakes. Instead, try to meet the difficult customer as an equal and have a conversation. 

Resist the urge to either accept or assign blame. Instead, ask open questions and try to understand the customer’s point of view. Use “I” statements and practice active listening. Sometimes, a misunderstanding is all that has happened and can be cleared up easily. So always try clear and professional communication first. 

Show empathy

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” In other words, you need to know that you understand how your customer is feeling and are sympathetic to it. 

Remember that empathy is not the same as being a pushover. You can – and should – start from a place of empathy while also maintaining and holding firm to your boundaries. 

Offer a solution

Is there a relatively straightforward way you can fix the situation? If so, you might want to offer it at this stage. Don’t ask the customer to name the solution they want. Difficult customers are likely to name something far out of proportion with the situation, like a full refund for a relatively small mistake or a large freebie. Then you’re stuck with having to say no, which can further inflame the situation. 

Instead, offer them a solution proactively. The important thing is to avoid offering solutions that are disproportionate, or that inconvenience you and your team too greatly. This not only leads to you feeling resentful and taken advantage of, it also shows a customer that all they have to do is throw their proverbial weight around and you’ll cave in. 

Even better? Offer two or three solutions that would be acceptable to you, and let the customer choose the one that works best for them. This puts them back in the driving seat within parameters that you set. 

Stick to the facts

Feelings can run high on both sides when it comes to difficult customer interactions. The best thing you can do is to take emotion out of it completely and stick to the facts. 

What went wrong, how and why did it happen, and what solutions can be agreed upon? By sticking rigorously to questions like these and resisting the temptation to make it an emotional issue, you can solve the problem much more quickly (and have much more chance of retaining a happy customer at the end of the day). 

Have your employees’ back

If you employ people, they need to know that you’re on their side. And this includes knowing that you’ll have their back in the face of a difficult customer. 

Back when I worked in customer-facing jobs, the worst customer interactions were always the ones that ended with being undermined by managers in front of customers. Don’t do this to your people. 

If your employees see that you’re willing to undermine them or throw them under the bus when a customer gets difficult, they won’t trust you. And losing the trust of your employees is a much bigger disaster than one obnoxious customer! 

Understand that you get to walk away

You’re the business owner – you’re in charge! You can ultimately choose to walk away from an interaction if it isn’t working for you and, if the customer is being rude or abusive, this might very well be the right thing to do. 

Walking away from a customer (whether that means ending their project early or banning them from your physical premises) should be a last resort, of course. But it’s a step you can take. And sometimes, it’s the right step. 

How do you handle it when the customer is wrong? 

Have you dealt with a difficult customer? We’d love to hear your tips, tricks, solutions… or horror stories! Get in touch and let us know. 

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