There has been a lot of research over the years on the things that make customers cranky. One very relevant, and somewhat surprising, piece of work was conducted by M.J. Bitner et al in the early 1990’s. This study, entitled “The Service Encounter: Diagnosing Favorable and Unfavorable Incidents”, confirmed that the most common culprit in conflict with customers is actually us. It turns out that, while customers may present the issues and challenges, it is most often the way we respond to these issues and challenges that causes customers to become ‘difficult.’
This is good news and bad news. The bad news is that, as much as we would like to point our fingers at our customers, the fingers often end up pointing back at us. The good news is that it means a lot, if not most, customer conflict is avoidable. Here are three things you can do to prevent situations from escalating into conflict:
1. Set Expectations
Gerard King and Gus Geursen, in their research (“A System Dynamics Investigation Of The Linkage Between Customer Satisfaction And Firm Profitability”), illustrated how important it is to manage the expectations of your customers. They found that managing and meeting customers’ expectations is more important to customer satisfaction than the actual quantity and quality we deliver.
This means, for example, that you shouldn’t say to a customer, “I’ll get this done right away,” because your customer and you may have different expectations of what ‘right away’ means. Instead, set your customer’s expectations by being specific; ie: “I’ll have this done for you by the end of the day.” Then make sure you deliver!
A couple of issues ago, Winning at Work focused on “The Art of Listening.” Nowhere is this more important than when trying to prevent conflict. A huge hot button for customers is when they perceive they aren’t being listened to.
3. Communicate how important they are
One of the most common triggers for conflict is when a customer begins to believe that you just don’t care about them. It’s important that you verbalize how important they are with statements such as, “I want to get this right for you,” “You’re an important customer for us,” “let’s figure out how to make this work,” etc.
There are, of course, many other conflict prevention strategies available to us, but these are three of the most powerful. Good luck with them!
[This is from the Archive Project – where we are attempting to get 10 years of Winning at Work on the web! Original publication date: 12 November, 2006]
Shaun Belding is CEO of The Belding Group and has been consulting and speaking on customer experience, employee engagement and workplace performance for 23 years