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Is the customer always right?

A 45-year-old woman was arrested after an incident at an Owndays Singapore eyewear retail outlet which left staff bruised and shocked.

‘The customer is always right’ has been the mantra of businesses for decades, but this is not necessarily true for retail staff on the shopfloor battling the hordes. Ensuring a premium experience is at the core of retailers thinking – but what can staff do when a customer is being difficult or unreasonable? Is there a way for retailers to turn the tide and change an abusive customer, into a paying one?

Let’s face it, unhappiness abounds all around us and human beings can find it difficult to curb their emotions. So enter the maelstrom of the shopping experience, where people are parting with hard earned cash in exchange for goods and it isn’t surprising that people can be prickly. Human interaction is unavoidable within a retail store – that is unless your staff are disinterested and don’t care for showcasing your brand in its best light and ignore the customer – so having a staff force that feels empowered to make decisions and meet challenging customers head on, could not only help your businesses reputation grow sales, but let individuals flourish professionally and personally.

The issue of staff suffering abuse from customers is one of those aspects within retail considered ‘part and parcel’ of the job. We all have to deal with unpleasant folk in day-to-day life, but retail staff are the often the unfair targets of vitriol. Late last year, the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) launched an online survey calling for retail and fast food workers to share their experiences, with over half of 10,000 respondents asserting they’d experienced customer violence or abuse in the workplace over the last two years.

“Thousands of retail and fast food workers are regularly subjected to customer abuse and violence while they are at work, and it’s not acceptable,” said Gerard Dwyer, national secretary of the SDA in launching the survey.

It’s perhaps a sense of loss that is what turns customers instantly into combat mode, be it through financial or product-related means. As a result, rule number one in diffusing situations and getting the customer back on your side, is show that you’re actually listening and interested in helping them find a resolution to ‘their loss.’

At the core of most customer issues is the fact they just want to be heard and acknowledged. Let the customer tell their story and reassure them you are listening by confirming back what you’re hearing using open and appropriate body language. “Customers can get aggravated when they feel the retailer is putting up road blocks, so reassure them there will be a solution to their issue and reason should prevail,” said Fay Pondif, managing partner at retail services firm, The Retail Space.

This reassurance is best done within a private area of the store if possible, so as to avoid making the customer feel they are a spectacle for others to gawk at. If the problem is too complicated to solve on the spot, it’s best to get management to assist. “If this is required, it is imperative you follow through and remain in contact with the customer, delivering updates so they feel you are responding and addressing their concerns,” said Pondif.

“If you put these processes into place and keep smiling through it the customer will appreciate not only your efforts and pro-activeness but will remain a loyal customer.”

According to Kate Gorman, national account director at mystery shopping agency, The Realise Group, most retailers should provide training for their staff on how to deal with difficult customers, and know it’s essential that the customer feels they are being heard and staff maintain a calm demeanour, even if the customer is raising their voice. Often team members may not have the authority to resolve a particular issue with a customer on-the-spot and their company policy may mean it needs to be escalated to higher management or head office.

Suffering abuse from customers is one of those aspects within retail considered ‘part and parcel’ of the job

“Great retailers now understand that they need to empower their team members and give them the tools and authority to make decisions to help resolve difficult customer situations on the spot,” she said. “When a customer receives quick resolution, not only can this turn an unhappy customer into a happy one, research shows that customer is also now more likely to talk positively about that retailer to others.”

Rest assured, customers are indeed reading complaints online. If comical in nature, a customer interaction on a retailer’s Facebook page can spread across the globe in an instant and potentially tarnish your brand. Yes, there are some examples of retailer’s ‘clever’ retorts garnering critical acclaim for dealing with unreasonable customers complaints, but this is risky and it’s better to get it right in-store and avoid repercussions online in a public forum.

No one should ever be subjected to retail rage, abuse or rudeness on the shopfloor by anyone but it does happen. “In today’s economic climate more and more retailers are under pressure to cut costs and reduce the level of staff on the shop floor, adding to the already frazzled and time poor customer’s frustrations,” said Pondif. “The customer is not always right but how we handle their grievances can make the difference and turn the situation into a positive one for all involved.” Firm but fair should be the rationale. “There is no room for abuse and staff need to understand the difference here and not be intimidated by this type of behaviour and reward customers who behave in this fashion.”

The customer may always be right in their mind, however abuse or rudeness is not treatment that shopfloor staff should have to endure as a result of an individual’s frustration. “Team members have the right to calmly speak to a rude customer and ask if there is anything they can do to meet the customer needs and if the answer is no then more often than not, the customer will leave of their own accord,” said Gorman. Importantly, if the team member can resolve the issue which has prompted the abuse in the first place, then will likely turn the situation around. If it doesn’t, most retailers will have guidelines they train their staff in to deal with unusual cases like this.

Empowering staff to make the right call

Retaining quality staff can be difficult within retail, particularly when abusive customers can hasten an individual’s desire to exit the industry in favour of less abrasive face-to-face interactions. This underlines the importance of having protocols in place to support and aid your company’s most valuable asset – its people.

Personalities of people who can effectively deal with difficult customers are not dissimilar to what is required to being an effective salesperson on the shopfloor

Consider the fashion category, where abusive customers can significantly reduce the glitz and glamour for young budding professionals.

“Most of us will start on the shop floor with the willpower and determination needed to carve ourselves an amazing retail fashion career, but inevitably find it difficult at times to get over some of the damaging attitudes customers deliver to us,” said Pondif. “Dealing with the public has its challenges but negative customer attitudes can get the better of you. You can sometimes feel your role is undervalued and underappreciated by customers.”

Customers at times can get very vocal and feel they must assert themselves if they feel ignored or unheard. They may ignore greetings, block attempts to assist them and will often leave dressing rooms in a state and damaged clothes in their wake. The hardest aspect to accept for some staff members may be that customers can also make it a personal attack, irrespective of someone simply doing their job.

“Staff training and support is paramount to help the retail fashion industry retain quality staff and build career paths in this very challenging industry. Unfortunately, most companies do not invest in these programs enough if at all,” said Pondif.

Putting one’s head in the sand won’t help either. Nasty customers come with the territory of running a retail store. Dealing with “bad” customers is a learned skill that requires interpretation and understanding of the most appropriate response to resolve the issue at hand. But are there certain personalities or characters to look for when hiring new staff? Group interviews, said Pondif, are the perfect environment to test candidate responses to challenging scenarios you will typically face in retail, including difficult customers. “This way we can see firsthand candidates who are more comfortable or more experienced in dealing with these situations.”

According to Gorman, the personalities of people who can effectively deal with difficult customers are not dissimilar to what is required to being an effective salesperson on the shopfloor. That is, having confidence to approach people and build rapport, in conjunction with engaging in conversation that uncovers desires and any objections. “Inter-personal skills are critical on the shop-floor, from the moment they approach a customer, through to finalising a sale. Retailers who provide support in training not only about the product or service, but also in the communication style and approach are likely to have the best success. Working on the shop floor in retail is so much more than just opening the doors, operating a register and having good product knowledge.”

Cutting and discarding

Sometimes the situation may not salvageable. If the situation reaches a point where the customer crosses the line and becomes downright rude and unfair, staff will need to make a judgement call on giving customers what they want versus “cutting ties” with them. Fear not, this might be the best option for your staff and business.

point of sale, pos, eftpos, shopping, retailChoosing the latter would mean that they’ll likely never shop with you again, but keeping a problematic customer can be just as bad. “A bad customer can hurt morale and make the working environment uncomfortable,” said Pondif. “Just as bad, a manager that won’t stand up to the customer and support his or her employees can have a negative impact as well.”

On the flipside, retailers that have staff capable of turning angry customers into paying ones are setting themselves up for a boost to the bottom line – with an enhanced reputation to boot.

“This is providing that staff are empowered to make decisions and take actions on the spot that can turn the situation around,” said Gorman. “If a retailer can take an unhappy customer and delight them with the service recovery, it’s amazing how much goodwill is created.
“In the large majority of instances, negative customer situations are dealt with and there is at least a neutral or positive outcome. Of course there will be times when perhaps all avenues to resolve an issue have been exhausted and the net result is that the customer is lost but in today’s ‘age of the customer’ – I imagine this is happening less often now.”

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