Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Thinking through alignment and disagreement 2: adding in customers and other external stakeholders 1

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on November 9, 2013

This is my second posting to a series in which I discuss the roles that disagreement and coming together in alignment can play in a business and how both can offer significant and even essential value – when expressed and considered in the right contexts and ways (see Part 1: negotiating within a business.) I began this discussion with a focus on discussion and decision making within the organization and among employees and between team members and their managers. I turn outward in this installment to consider how agreement, disagreement and consensus building play out when working with customers. And I begin that by citing an old and often repeated adage, that the customer is always right. This is a sentiment that is often stated but rarely acted upon as if believed in and for a simple reason:

• The customer is not always right.
• But even when they are wrong, they should always be listened to and treated with respect. And that requirement when facing disagreement with a customer is too often misidentified as an admonition to pretend that they are always right.

And in this, when a customer comes to believe some point of opinion or presumed fact from your business’ marketing or sales information, or from your web site as value added educational material and they are wrong in what they conclude from it – that should be seen as a red flag warning that your business’ message might not be clear, consistent or entirely accurate.

• When a customer shares a misunderstanding with you, they might in fact be offering quality assurance help for correcting and updating your message that comes from your own business.

This is important, and I add this is a type of detail and a customer relations perspective that is all too rarely followed in practice. Customers can be wrong, but when they are the mistakes and errors in understanding that they present you with might stem from causes that you can and should address. Or they might simply be wrong; but you should still treat them with the same respect that you would want afforded to you if your positions were reversed.

Now let’s consider the angry or upset customer. A customer who is angry or upset should be seen as raising a red flag warning too – and as offering potential positive value to you and your business too. This is certainly true if their dissatisfaction and their negative response have developed as a result of breakdowns in your business’ customer facing processes and how they are carried out in fact, as opposed to how they might be stated in principle.

• Processes that sound good on paper and in principle do not always smoothly translate into action, and when challenged by the complexities and variability of real customer transactions and real customer needs.
• When a customer-facing process breaks down those customers can and do get upset, and certainly if they see themselves as facing negative consequences as a result of this failure.
• Here, when a customer complains they may in fact be doing you a favor by pointing out to you where you and your business can do better, and become more effectively competitive as a result.
• Or they might simply come to your business already upset or prepared to be from prior experience and their expressed distress might not actually have anything to do with you or what you do as a business professional. Consider the customer who comes into your store right after finding a traffic ticket on their car for illegal parking – and who then cannot quickly find what they are looking for. They might remain calm but they are predisposed to be upset, at least at that moment.

All of this calls for employees to step back and to not take even strident customer tirades personally. Take them seriously and really listen to them for messages that you can use, and both in correcting their specific issues, and for improving your overall processes. But do not add your own ego and emotions to what is already a perhaps volatile situation. If there is a fire, don’t pour the gasoline of your own emotions on the flames. That can and does quickly turn what might be recoverable opportunity into guaranteed lose/lose predicaments.

• I write this with lessons learned from seeing bad customer relations and sales performance in action, and from seeing how badly and how quickly things can go wrong and for everyone involved when a sales person responds to a customer’s acting out by doing the same themselves.

When a customer is angry and upset, your primary immediate goal should be to help restore what should be a positive conversation and for both you and your customer. And if you can do this yourself do so, but if you need to bring in a manager to satisfy customer concerns do that. Problem resolution and customer relations assistance on issues that need to be escalated up for resolution are, or at least should be part of the basic job description of any sales manager. (The trick from a sales associate perspective in this is to know when to do this and bring a problem to a manager and when to resolve issues and challenges on their own. The basic rule, which I acknowledge up-front does have exceptions, is to bring in a manager when a customer requests that, and then to do so as quickly and smoothly as possible while being ready to take this customer back again if possible, after any managerial problem resolution.)

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment and then turn to consider other types of outside stakeholders, and working with supply chain partners as a specific working example. Meanwhile, you can find this posting at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and related material at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory.

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