Taking the difficulty out of dealing with difficult customers

By Bob Clements

If you’ve owned your dealership for more than 30 days, you may have already heard customers say some of the following things:

You people are complete idiots!
I will never do business with you again!
I will make it my goal in life to make sure that everyone I know finds out about how crooked your dealership is!
I am going to get a lawyer and sue you!

It could happen in your store, across your parts counter, in the service department, or in your parking lot, but at some time in your life as a dealer, you have had to deal with an unhappy customer. I always smile as I hear dealers tell the stories they wear like badges of honor of some of the customers they have had to deal with and how they resolved the problems they have encountered with out-of-control customers.

Now granted, not all customers who are angry are stupid people, and not all dealers are angels in how they handle their customers. In this article, I want to look at both sides of the issue and give you some insight on how to deal with an out-of-control customer, as well as tips on how you can change some of your processes to reduce the possibility that a customer feels the need to take your head off.

Three types of difficult customers

Let’s face the facts: If you have been in business as long as I have, you will find that “difficult customers” fall into three categories: Psychos, Scammers, and Keepers.

1. Psychos: These customers are hyper-defensive from the moment they enter your store. They don’t trust you or anyone else, and there is nothing you are going to do to change that. They question everything you do, and go line by line over the bill. These are the customers that deal in a reality that few people ever enter.

I’ve had dealers tell me stories of the “Psycho,” who threatens to contact the state attorney general to bring price-gouging charges against them for what they are charging for a carburetor or a repair. I recently had an Ohio dealer who shared the story of a “Psycho,” who brought the local police in to help him make the dealer give back a $35 diagnostic fee because he chose not to have the box store string trimmer repaired. Of course, the “Psycho” was unaware that several of the community’s police officers and firefighters were commercial cutters who purchased all of their equipment from the dealer. Needless to say, the dealer kept the fee, and the police removed the “customer” from the store.

Just to be clear, there is nothing you are going to do to make the “Psycho” a happy customer. These are people who need medication and psychological treatment, and there is nothing you or I can do to solve their problems. Your goal with these people is to identify them and move them to your competitor as soon as possible, letting them know that they may take their business elsewhere.

Don’t worry about them telling other potential customers about your business. These are people who attract others like themselves, and the last thing you want in your dealership is the friends of these people.

2. Scammers: “Scammers” are the ones who come into your dealership with the intent to take advantage of some flaw in your policies, so they can get something for free or at a reduced price. I won’t call them “con artists” because what they do is not illegal, but their goal is to legally steal from you because of some weakness you have in how you do business. These are the people who imply that you told them something that you know is not true, and work you or your employees like a “rented mule” to get something for nothing. They will fight you over the smallest thing until you finally give in, and, when they leave after getting what they want, they treat you nicely to set you up to be worked again in the future.

As much as “Scammers” disgust me, they do provide a valuable service in business. They are the ones who magnify your weaknesses and force you to make the necessary policy changes to improve your dealership. We are fortunate that even though the “Psycho” and the “Scammer” are a pain in the backside, they represent a small number of the customers you deal with, and they have very little impact on the overall impression that potential customers have about your dealership.

3. Keepers: “Keepers” are good customers who have expectations about your dealership that you didn’t meet. They are angry but worth keeping for the future of your business.

So what initially makes a “Keeper” unhappy? Well, in all cases, it starts with unmet expectations. When “Keepers” enter your dealership, they bring with them an expectation of what should happen. Some base their expectations on past experiences at your store, while others who have never been in your dealership base theirs off an experience at another OPE dealer or another retailer like a box store.

Let’s use the example of charging a diagnostic fee to estimate repairs on equipment. Pretend for a moment that you have a customer who walks into your store to have you look at repairing a string trimmer that was purchased elsewhere. The customer comes to the counter with several expectations. First, the customer may assume that you have a tech ready to look at the equipment at that moment, and second, assumes you will do it for free with the hope of getting the repair business. In the dealerships I consult, neither of those expectations would be correct, but it doesn’t change the fact that the “Keeper” has them.

Keep in mind that if you have a lot of unhappy customers, it’s probably not because you are just an unlucky dealer. Most likely, you are not being clear in what you offer or how you explain your business processes to your customers. The faster you “fix” your problems, the fewer hostile situations you are going to have with the customers you want to keep for the life of your dealership.

Eight steps for dealing with difficult customers

1. Get your process right.

As an owner, the first and most important step in dealing with difficult customers is to do whatever you can to make sure your employees communicate clearly to every customer how you do business. If you charge a diagnostic fee, make sure customers understand that it is paid up-front and not refundable, even if they choose not to have the work done. If the equipment is taken apart, make sure your employees communicate that the equipment will not be reassembled if the customer makes the decision to not have the repair completed.

2. Dump the “Psycho” and the “Scammer.”

Move “Psycho” customers to a place in your dealership that is away from the front counter. Don’t say a lot, and let them wear themselves down. They are going to scream and shout like a 3-year-old child throwing a tantrum. Don’t try to stop them — just let them burn themselves out.

For “Scammers,” listen to them and then say, “I appreciate what you are saying, and this is what we are able to do for you.” They will argue with you. Once again, listen to what they have to say and repeat the same statement, “I appreciate what you are saying, and this is what we are able to do for you.” Continue to say the same thing, and at some point, they will realize that you are not going to budge from your position. Keep in mind that they know what they are doing and will feign shock at your unwillingness to change your position. Don’t argue, stand your ground, and don’t give away the farm. These customers are not ones you want, so why lose money on them?

3. Focus your energy on the “Keeper.”

Your goal with “Keepers” is to salvage them as customers, not to prove them wrong. You want to do whatever you can to keep them happy and keep them coming back year after year. Don’t argue with the “Keeper,” because even if you win, you lose.

4. Listen to what “Keepers” have to say.

“Keepers” are not there to rip you off. They have what they believe is a legitimate concern about how you are dealing with them. Your goal is to listen to what they are saying without interrupting them. Since they feel they have been wronged, ignored, or under-appreciated, your focus should be to listen for ways to change their feelings.

5. Ask “Keepers” for their input.

Let “Keepers” know that you want to do what’s fair and right for both you and them. Say something like, “I know you want to be fair. What do you think we can do to make this work for both of us?” If you appeal to their sense of fair play, most of the time, they will live up to your expectation. Tell the customer what you can do.

6. Watch your words.

Use positive language when you are discussing options. State what you can do, not what you can’t. Instead of saying, “It’s not our policy,” say, “Here’s what we could do.” Rather than saying, “I don’t know,” try saying, “I’ll find out.” Say, “The best option for us both is going to be,” not “The only thing I can do is.”

7. Be proactive.

“Keepers” are anxious to put problems behind them and to resolve issues. If you exhibit a genuine concern and a willingness to take immediate action, the “Keeper” will remember your positive attitude longer than any negative feelings.

8. Agree on a solution.

Make sure that you come to a solution that will get an agreement from “Keepers.” If there’s more than one potential solution, explain each option and let them choose which they would prefer.

The truth is that, as an OPE dealer, no matter how good you or your employees are, there will always be customers who are unhappy about something. You won’t be able to save them all. However, if you focus on the customers who will bring you long-term value and dump the ones who you will never satisfy, your life and your business will be much simpler.

 Bob Clements is the president of Bob Clements International, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in the development of high-performance dealerships. His organization works hands on with dealerships throughout North America, helping them attain the personal freedom and financial wealth all owners strive to achieve. For more information, contact Bob Clements at (800) 480-0737 or bob@bobclements.com or visit his Web site at www.bobclements.com.  

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