The Best Retort is...No Retort?
The Land of the Offended
Ever run a business? Ever get that one customer? Yeah. You know which one I’m talking about. The whittle-you-down-to-zero-pricing-and-then-expect-triple-the-package-value-you-just-quoted-them type of customer. Ugh. The ones that make your heart beat with pride and make your legs skip merrily down the street shouting “I love free enterprise! God bless self-employment! Everyone attack me!” Nuttin’ better than an angry customer to deal with.
Those customers. The ones that want everything on a platter, and if you don’t give it to them, they run right to Yelp. Sidenote: I hate Yelp. Like, with every fiber of my being and the fire of a thousand suns. It's a Comcast-level hatred, really.
People are so itching to be offended these days. It’s the little issues, it’s the big ones. It’s the minor inconveniences that get taken straight up to the Supreme Court to bend laws around the entire rest of the population so that you yourself can feel a little bit better. And you, the business owner that just wants to provide the service the way you want to? You’re looked at as the aggressor, the inflexible, the jerk. You get the scarlet letter once - and the mob mentality kicks in and pounces without mercy. Pretty soon, you’re out of business and trying to scrounge up enough change for Top Ramen, while your dream of self-employment goes down in a blaze of glory.
Extreme examples aside, what’s to be done? How do you weather the storm created by an upset customer? Do you let yourself be trampled over? Do you rest on the fine print of your contract to carry you through said storm? What if the judge wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and decides against your perfectly logical fine print out of their own personal prejudice? What do you do?
The Best Defense
It’s been said that the best defense is a good offense. That may be true in basketball, in football, in soccer, etc.. But it doesn’t translate well to business. In business, the best defense…is actually NO defense.
Allow me to explain before you pull your hair out, throw small animals and curse my descendants.
I’ve been in multimedia business since 2003. All that to say that I’ve been licensed as a business, and therefore “official.” I’ve been conducting business since forever ago, back when hairy women walked around and dinosaurs ravaged our caves. I can still hear the screams…
In all that time I’ve had to deal with many troublesome customers. Some I’ve taken to court. I’ve been fortunate to never have been taken to court myself - *knock on wood* - but ultimately there have been some customers where the writing was on the wall from the beginning that they were going to be, hmmm, challenging. I’ve sometimes taken on these customers anyway out of noble aims to provide for my family and not flippantly dismiss a chance at putting bread on the table, even though with some I initially sensed some potential conflict. That’s the beauty of self-employment: you can actually choose your customers, believe it or not. Equally, you can also terminate your customers. There have been customers that I’ve fired, and there have been other customers I would have literally liked to Arnold Schwarzenegger terminate.
One thing that being in business does to you over time is it refines your Spider-sense for those who will eventually be problematic. They’re the ones that scrupulously and meticulously cover the fine print with you. The ones that ask too many questions. The ones that whittle your price down. The ones that never say thank you. The ones that email you and tell you to call them – and I don’t know about you but I just LOVE being summoned). The ones you look over and see outside your bedroom window at night and have to call the police on (I didn’t accept these ones, which is why they’re standing there with that moose head).
According to Geoffrey James on Inc, there are 10 things customers want from vendors:
- Bring New Perspectives and Ideas - If customers could diagnose their own problems and come up with workable solutions on their own, they would do so. The reason that they're turning to you and your firm is that they're stuck and need your help. Therefore, you must be able to bring something new to the table.
- Be Willing to Collaborate - Customers absolutely do NOT want you to sell them something, even something that's wonderful. They want you to work with them to achieve a mutual goal, by being responsive to the customer's concerns and ways of doing business. Ideally, customers want you to become integral to their success.
- Have Confidence In Your Ability to Achieve Results - Customers will not buy from you if you can't persuade them that you, your firm, and your firms offerings will truly achieve the promised results. It is nearly impossible to persuade a customer to believe in these things unless you yourself believe in them. You must make your confidence contagious.
- Listen, Really Listen, to the Customer - When they're describing themselves and their needs, customers sense immediatelywhen somebody is just waiting for a break in the conversation in order to launch into a sales pitch. In order to really listen, you must suppress your own inner-voice and forget your goals. It's about the customer, not about you.
- Understand ALL the Customer's Needs - It's not enough to "connect the dots" between customer needs and your company's offering. You must also connect with the individuals who will be affected by your offering, and understand how buying from you will satisfy their personal needs, like career advancement and job security.
- Help the Customer Avoid Potential Pitfalls - Here's where many sellers fall flat. Customers know that every business decision entails risk but they also want your help to minimize that risk. They want to know what couldgo wrong and what has gone wrong in similar situations, and what steps you're taking to make sure these problems won't recur.
- Craft a Compelling Solution - Solution selling is definitely not dead. Customers want and expect you to have the basic selling skill of defining and proposing a workable solution. What's different now though is that the ability to do this is the "price of entry" and not enough, by itself, to win in a competitive sales situation.
- Communicate the Purchasing Process - Customers hate it when sellers dance around issues like price, discounts, availability, total cost, add-on options, and so forth. They want you to be able to tell them, in plain and simple language, what's involved in a purchase and how that purchase will take place. No surprises. No last minute upsells.
- Connect Personally With the Customer - Ultimately, every selling situation involves making a connection between two individuals who like and trust each other. As a great sales guru once said: "All things being equal, most people would rather buy from somebody they like... and that's true even when all things aren't equal."
- Provide Value That's Superior to Other Options - And here, finally, at the No. 10 spot (below everything else) comes the price and how that price compares to similar offerings. Unless you can prove that buying from you is the right business decision for the customer, the customer can and should buy elsewhere.
I recognize that these are all valid. But now that we’re clear on those ten, I’d like to add the Anomaly, Number Eleven:
- Shut up when the customer is angry.
Really? Yes. Seriously? Absolutely. Just like that Devo song: “Zip it…zip it good. Now you can zip it…into shape…shape it up…get straight…go forward…move ahead…try to detect it…it’s not too late…to zip it…zip it good.”
The best retort is actually NO retort.
We've all seen smokestacks. Some customers are like smokestacks. You can’t get into a war of words with them when something goes wrong. Smokestacks are designed to let off steam. When you argue with them, belabor the point, and don’t simply "can it", you actually can them. And steam that is not allowed to be let off builds up to detonation.
Consider Proverbs 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Here and now, you and I have to renounce the “right” to have the last word. We’re not allowed it: it was always the customer’s. After all, the customer is always right…even when they’re wrong. This is not to suggest that you let yourself be trampled upon: if a customer is manufacturing libel and slander about you online, then by all means defend yourself – but do it with courtesy and respect. Rather, win the unwinnable fight by letting the customer win. Does it take a surrender of pride? Sure. Is it worth it in the end? Yes. Have I had customers come back later to apologize for being rude even after they’ve “won”? You bet I have.
There’s another proverb that says “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” And oooooooh! I’m on a roll! Somebody stop me! The Swedish proverb says “Better to be closed-mouthed and thought a fool, than to open your mouth and dispel all doubt.”
It’s our job to take the hits and keep mum. To bear the brunt of the frontal assault on our name, our reputation, our performance, our delivery, our product. It’s all on us. Customers will unleash the full fury of hell upon us for any one of a thousand reasons. The key is to shut up and take it. Let them blow their stack. Let the Wookie win.
Letting the Wookie Win
“Yeah, but that’s ‘cause a droid don’t pull people’s arms out of their sockets when they lose. Wookies are known to do that.” Great advice from everybody’s rugged space cowboy, who knows all too well that there is profound wisdom in letting the Wookie win.
Your customers are Wookies. All of them. Say it to yourself now: “All of my customers are Wookies.” Walk down the street wearing a sandwich board, ringing your bell, and saying that. There. Feel better? Get vinyl lettering for your car, because it’s true: they’re either huge.....and cuddly, purring and adorable, or they’re huge.....and roaring, vindictive, and arm-removing. Beneath that one coat of fur is a melting pot of emotions that, if stirred up, can backfire on you. Not even Obi-Wan Kenobi can Jedi-mind-trick your arms back on after such an encounter goes south.
By doing all this, by absorbing all of the customer’s ire, by not coming back with any retort or defense or blame, you defuse a massive ticking time bomb. In so doing, you protect your reputation and your product. You essentially “win” by letting them “win.” After all, wouldn’t it be nice if they just went away? That’s the ultimate goal: bub-bye now. But of course, you can’t say that, nor can you say anything like that. A gentle answer – or even NO answer - turns away wrath. You can deafen your opposition with silence. The best retort is no retort.
Have I learned this the hard way here and there? Yes. I’ve become embroiled in those wars of words on occasion, lying in bed with my heart pounding, just waiting (wanting?) for that reply to come through the email, so that I could come back with something even more powerful: a retort well-rehearsed and perfected in the shower, arguing with my imaginary foe, mastering the Art of The Perfect Comeback so that the showdown belongs to ME, and my enemy goes forever wallowing into the dust as I stand victorious over their bloodied corpse. I’ve pictured it. It’s pretty cool.
You know you do this, by the way. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.
But who really won? I was stressed out. I perhaps lost a friend…or a repeat customer…or my good name…or my sanity. Aren’t those too precious, and indeed non-expendable?
What IS expendable is your peace of mind. Your assurance that your reputation will remain intact. Your ability to get other things done. Your sanity. So, as C-3PO said in conclusion, “I propose a new strategy, R2. Let the Wookie win.” Scratch that Wookie on the back. Give him the ol’ oo-zhoo-boo-boo-doo-doo and send him on his angry way a little less angry.
In the end, you’ll be less stressed out…and hey! Bonus! You’ll still have your arms.
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