Plenty of people have nominated their bosses for their Biggest Challenge at Work. But no one has yet said that about a customer. Not on our website, anyway. Perhaps people with those kinds of challenges are seeking advice elsewhere. Maybe they don’t believe that employee engagement will help them battle an unruly customer.
We at Axero beg to differ.
Customer-service engagement has been shown to cut down the number of unhappy customers, so you’d have fewer battles to begin with. If you want to see how that works, check out this post: 7 Employee Engagement Tips from the Best Hotel in the World
Today we’re taking a different angle. Sure, pleasing and delighting customers is a must in a competitive business. But let’s be real: a customer is not always right. That attitude may serve you ninety-nine percent of the time. But there’s that one percent that will push you over the edge. Let me give you an example from Axero’s past.
Our customers can choose to give employees mobile access to Communifire, our social intranet platform. Axero used to put a custom app in the App Store for every customer who wanted one. When asked during sales calls how mobile access worked for iPhone users, we would always reply: “Easy. Just download your app from the App Store.”
Unbeknownst to us, Apple changed its policy. Instead of storing enterprise-specific apps on its public domain, it now lets companies create their own app stores for their employees. When I learned why this customer’s Communifire app wasn’t showing up in the App Store, I wrote her a cheerful email. “Hey, Ms. Customer,” I said, “we got to the bottom of your issue! Apple wants us to do this differently now, but no worries: we’ve got you covered. You’re getting an even better deal than you thought you were!”
Win-win-win, right? Not so fast, Tim.
When I got her response, I had to read it three times to be sure my eyes were not deceiving me. She accused me of a bait-and-switch and demanded I put her app in the App Store if I had to fly to Cupertino and storm the Apple headquarters.
No problem. Just a little miscommunication. I figured a phone call would quickly restore sanity. The first call took 40 minutes and set me back even further than the email exchange. She was not impressed with the fact that I had no control over Apple. She did not believe that the new way was the same, only better. Nor was she willing to let me take care of it and let the results convince her.
I felt like an ant being run over by a semi. Prior to that conversation, I considered myself a good communicator. I had read seven books on persuasion, several more on negotiations, body language, deception, and NLP. I had customers all over the world, and I knew the subject matter cold. Yet nothing I could say made that customer happy. I even offered to refund the price of the app. No go. The harder I tried, the more upset she got. After that incident, we trained the entire Axero staff in active listening. We no longer try to convince unhappy customers to be happy. We simply provide a space for them to express their point of view. And since we’re talking about customers being wrong, the more incomprehensible it is, the sooner they talk themselves out of it—because the only voice they are hearing is theirs.
For example, we love to add new features our customers find useful. We’re always asking them for suggestions. Of course, we can’t use every one. Some of the ideas contradict each other, and some make no sense at all. Here’s a conversation I’ve had about that:
Customer: Tim, your software should have better analytics.Tim: It sounds like you’re concerned about analytics. Customer: We want to see some interesting stats.Tim: It seems like you’d like to explore additional reports. What kinds of stats would you like reported? What is interesting to you?Customer: I dunno. You’re the pro, Tim. You should tell me what kinds of stats I want.Tim: I’m sensing that you would like us to suggest some stats you might find interesting. Customer: Yes.Tim: Okay. Thank you for your feedback. I will put that on the list for our next team meeting.Customer: You are welcome.
Remember when Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify in front of a congressional committee about selling user data to third-party advertisers? Even though Axero doesn’t sell ads, we became guilty by association, and I had to do some testifying of my own:
Customer: Tim, how does Axero ensure the privacy of Communifire users?Tim: It seems like you’re worried about privacy.Customer: Facebook sells customer data to third parties. How do we know you don’t?Tim: Sell your data to advertisers?Customer: I know you don’t run ads on Communifire, but since it’s similar to social media, I wanted to make sure that our employees’ data was safe.Tim: It sounds like you want to make sure we are not Facebook.Customer: Exactly.Tim. Got it. Glad I could help.
Then there’s the perennial conversation about the social features of our software. Some customers spend months researching the latest bells and whistles, but as soon as they sign the contract, they want to shut them off:
Customer: Tim. Can we turn off chat? We’re afraid our employees will use it inappropriately.Tim: It sounds like you’re worried about employees using bad judgment.Customer: We can’t see what they’re chatting about. How do we know it’s work-related?Tim: It seems like you want your employees to stay focused on their jobs. Is it just while they’re using chat? Or when they’re talking face-to-face too? Or when they are using email?Customer: I see your point, Tim. We can’t control what they say anyway. Personally, I think chat is fine. It was my boss’s idea to turn it off. Let me see if I can change her mind.Tim: Let me know if I can help.
So, what happened to the App-Store lady, Tim? Did the active listening technique work with her?
Nope. All my techniques failed with her. But we got lucky. During the second conference call to resolve the App Store issue, she brought on her IT guy. The conversation started out the same as before—with me deep in the trenches, bullets whizzing over my head. Then I heard the IT guy’s voice: “I think I understand what he’s trying to say.” For the rest of the call, I was quiet and let the two of them talk it over. Next thing I knew, we were done. She’s still a customer, and they’re happy with their new intranet.
So, the final piece of advice for dealing with customers who don’t make sense to you is to get more of them in the room. Then sit back and watch them debate each other. Chances are, they will answer their own questions and solve their own problems. In fact, that’s your best chance.
If you’ve ever tried active listening or sit-back-and-listening, you know it’s harder than it seems. It takes extraordinary self-control to keep your mouth shut when you would normally say something. Your employees can master it, as mine have, but it takes extra effort. That’s why engagement is crucial.
Keep your employees engaged, give them the training and coaching they need, and they may find serving difficult customers as rewarding as serving gracious ones. When that’s the case, you have nothing more to fear from your customers.
If you like pleasing customers, you might like my book, because it will make your customer-facing employees want to please you.
Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.
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