Dealers’ Domain

Question: How do you deal with difficult customers?

There are two types of difficult customers. First, there is the irate customer. This person has practiced his/her spiel and can’t wait to unload it. It may involve a little money dispute, or a time problem, but in any case, when you spot it coming, brace yourself. Picture an old tape recorder — the kind with the two 7-inch reels and a 1/4-inch plastic tape. The irate customer has to deliver his/her recorded message before coming to the end of his tape. Listen and smile; then, when he’s finished, say, “What can I do to make you happy?” This will disarm the customer, and, from then on, you can talk like two reasonable, equal individuals.
The second type of customer repeatedly demands more than you can deliver. He might pay less than the amount of the bill, or he may want you to make a piece of junk run like new. When it becomes apparent that he’ll never be satisfied, write him a short, neutral letter, and send it to his home. Recommend that in the future he take repair work to the shop out on the edge of town.
— Flute Snyder
Hudson Mower Doctor
Hudson, Wis.

We attempt to follow the rule that the customer is always right. If this is not possible, we attempt to negotiate to the customer’s satisfaction, trying our best to not lose a customer, as they are our lifeline.
— Les Rochester, senior manager
J&L Repair
Roy, Wash.

This is a tough question in the fact that they are typically agitated to a high level by the time that they get to me. So, the first thing that I do is listen to their problem and try to be sympathetic. Typically, a customer wants someone to just listen and explain the dealership’s side just as slowly and calmly as possible. A calm but firm voice is a must. Let them know you “feel their pain” and are going to do everything you can to rectify the problem. Then, don’t give lip service; do just that. The customer is not always right, but he doesn’t need to know that. We all make mistakes, and, when we do, we need to admit them. A common sales tactic that I may use is find a small problem, then exploit that problem to gain their trust and let them know that we are all human and make mistakes. But some problems can’t be fixed and some people can’t be reasoned with; these are truly problem customers — “the continual complainers.” The squeaky wheel mentality is a very hard attitude to deal with. These customers have a sense of entitlement that’s hard to shake, and they take the right person to deal with them. They may have to be told at some point that they just aren’t worth the trouble. This is a last resort! Customers are just too valuable to lose, so at times, you will have to “give in” to their demands, but this is a slippery slope. There are times that personalities just clash; if you see this happening, take a step back, assess the situation, and determine if you are the right person to try and solve the customer’s dilemma. If not, withdraw and find someone more suited to the attitude of the customer. Your dealership needs to find someone to handle these customers as smoothly as possible; no one wants to walk into a dealership and hear yelling. If this is a possibility, head it off in advance by finding a quiet place. The bottom line is keeping as much business as possible, so “don’t carry a knife to a gunfight.” Try to get as much information in advance as you can. Know as many of the facts as possible, and try to have a solution worked out in advance. When all is said and done, talk to your salesman and explain where they could have done a better job, or thank them if it sounds like they did all that they could.
— Danny Spears, small engine manager
Williams Tractor, Inc.
Fayetteville, Ark.

Every now and then, everyone has a bad day! I think qualifying a customer at the beginning of a sale will tell a lot.
When a customer tells me where he is from and they are not from the area, there are a couple of reasons this might happen. He’s been kicked out of his neighboring dealer or just had a bad experience. Then, it’s time to ask more. He might be a low-price shopper, and you might not want to deal with him anyway as everything you try to do for him will need to get the nickel-and-dime treatment, often keeping you away from good accounts.
There might be a problem with your service or sales department. If that is the case, deal with it immediately as it can only fester into more of an issue.
— Art White
White’s Farm Supply Inc.
Sangerfield, N.Y.

I used to take a lot more “crap” from some customers than I do now. I’ll do anything to satisfy a REASONABLE customer. After reading a few articles on “firing the customer,” I’ve learned to do just that! We give a very high level of customer service, and I just don’t have the time or mental energy to try to pacify a few difficult ones.
— Dean Davis
Dogwood Inc.
Carbondale, Ill.

Usually if customers are being difficult, it boils down to two situations: 1) there is something we did wrong at the dealership; or 2) there is a problem with a product we sold them. Either way, I usually let the customer vent (as long as he or she does not become abusive), then take some notes of what the problem relates to. We always tell them that we will do everything possible to take care of their situation. Then, we follow through on that promise. The bottom line is that they want their problem taken care of, and as long as they feel we are listening and going to help them, this usually solves the matter.
— John Moon
Moon’s Farm-Yard Center, Inc.
Ulysses, Pa.

Here, I feel lucky. I am able to talk with them at their level, and, for the most part, I can take charge of the conversation. Once in charge, I control the direction things go, the difficult customer is calmed, and most problems are resolved.
— Matt Borden, owner
Ed & Matt Equipment
Greenville, R.I.

Depends on the customer and complaint. I try hard to correct their complaint as quickly as possible. I’m pretty easygoing and fair. Some complaints are from some customers you couldn’t please if you had to, and we all have those. If I can’t please them, I suggest the next shop down the street in a nice way most of the time. Been a few over the past 34 years that I didn’t suggest nicely.
— Tony Nation
Nation’s Small Engine’s Inc.
Hot Springs, Ark.

With my rental business, I deal with more customer complaints than most OPE dealers. We try to analyze and solve the complaint. The next step is to ask the customer what do they want and what can we do to solve the problem. When situations are beyond our control, warranty problems, etc., we will discuss the issue with our suppliers or put our customers in touch with people who can mediate their problem. The biggest change in the Big Box Age is customers who demand free things; we can’t do free things. When we are dealing with big box equipment, we can’t do goodwill repairs, and most complaining customers don’t understand this. We are getting more of this type of customer. The only thing we can do at that point is make sure we did our part trying to mediate the complaint. We keep all notes and conversations because there is a chance that we may be a defendant in small claims court.
Ninety-nine percent of our customers are good honest people, situations arise, and we will do anything we can to keep the customer happy. Some relationships can’t be saved, and there are those customers who are just dishonest.
— Rob Leiser
Leiser Rental
Easton, Pa. 

We are very fortunate that we don’t have many difficult customers, but we do have one once in a while. We listen to them, and, if they have a legitimate complaint, we try to do what it takes to make them happy and keep them as customers. We have had a few in past years that no matter what you do for them, they are unhappy and difficult to please; for those, we politely ask them to take their business to the competition. There are few customers out there that you are better off without; thankfully, we haven’t had many of them.
— Terry Coffin, president
Beard’s Outdoor Power Equipment
Crestwood, Ky.

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