The “No Whining” Rule

no whining

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of businesses that gripe and complain about whiny-ass customers who make unreasonable demands.  If not for us customers, you wouldn’t exist.  When no one is willing to purchase your products any longer, you and all your profits will vanish without a wisp of smoke.

And I, for one, will shed no tears.

If you want a glimpse of what I mean, take a look at Stacy Hall’s columns about customer service on  First she claims that customers should be nicer to businesses, then she justifies telling us “no” as long as businesses do so politely.

“Co-Dependency” or The Balance of Power

Hall describes the relationship between many businesses and their customers as “co-dependent” on the grounds that “one person is continually serving the needs of the other without reciprocation.”

Checking further into the definition of “codependency,” I found one therapist who describes this phenomenon as “making the relationship more important to you than you are to yourself . . . trying to make the relationship work with someone else who’s not.”

Hall’s implication is that customer service representatives (CSRs) are often called upon to exercise self-sacrifice, i.e., to satisfy the customer regardless of the unreasonableness of her demands and regardless of the cost to the company.

This, essentially, is a description of the relationship summed up in the ancient adage that “the customer is always right.”

Hall argues that this line of thinking results in an imbalance that unfairly tips the relationship entirely in favor of the customer, giving her or him all the power and the business none.  So, if I understand what she is saying correctly, the customer is not entitled to act like a self-absorbed three year old who throws a tantrum to express his frustration over not being able to get exactly what he wants.  In other words, businesses exist to make a profit and ought not allow themselves to be bullied by (ooo!) aggressive customers who want what they want when they want it and who don’t care how their attitudes affects the companies with which they are doing business.

I’ve often heard talk about a sense of entitlement among customers.

Well, isn’t this a switch?  And what about the sense of entitlement among businesses?

Most of us shop in stores that are very far removed from the souk or the Arab bazaar.  Customers do not have the opportunity to haggle over prices, nor do they have any say about the relative quality of the merchandise nor the business’ return and refund policies.  As you can see, all the power is in the hands of the business.  Like the prisoner whose only power is to go on a hunger strike, the customer’s only power is to walk out the door and shop elsewhere.  And depending on the community in which one resides, there may or may not be a viable “elsewhere” (online shopping is starting to change this).

So with all the power in the power in the hands of the business, I think it takes some pretty big cojones to aver that we, as customers, are abusing our power.

Businesses need to implement a no whining rule.  I submit to you that those businesses that wish to be known as providing world-class customer service must find a way to satisfy the customer, even when he or she is being unreasonable.  And here is where I disagree with Hall.

Whether the customer is “right” or not is a perception on the part of the business.  And guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  To obtain repeat customers and spread a positive company reputation to draw in new customers, the CSR must find a way to satisfy the customer.  And yes, I mean even when the customer is being “unreasonable.”

This means that the CSR must be thoroughly trained in all the tools and options available to potentially turn the customer’s frown upside down.  It’s bad enough that the customer is dissatisfied in the first place; failure to rectify the situation will lose the customer for good.

Hall seems to believe that there are times when it makes sense to lose the customer, that the deal must be beneficial to both parties.  That’s what a contract is all about, isn’t it?  Mutual benefit?  Hall is correct in the sense that there is no contract when there is no agreement between the parties.  Just be aware that walking away from the contract enough times will cause your business to evaporate.  Satisfied customers often keep their opinions to themselves, but dissatisfied customers tell everyone they know about how awful the company is.

So. . .  Do businesses have the right to say “no,” to stick to their guns, to adhere to company policies to a T, to allow CSRs to spout meaningless verbiage from a script?  Certainly they do.  And then they can spend their time chasing rainbows and other newfangled theories about why business is falling off.

It’s not a mystery.  Quit whining and start providing the type of service your customers deserve.

Perhaps Hall is correct in here position that customers tend to be demanding.  That, however, is the price of the business being the party that establishes all the rules.  If it behooves businesses not to permit customers to walk all over them, I submit to you that customers must take the same approach to businesses.

Ultimately, a business that “stands up for itself” rather than “giving in to unreasonable customer demands” has far more to lose than does the customer.

I like what Hall says about customers receiving better customer service when they treat CSRs with respect.  As a manager, it is my wish that this would always happen.  But the fact remains that customers do have bad days influenced by factors in their lives that have nothing to do with the transaction at hand.  The CSR does not have such a privilege.  That is what is known as a “cost of doing business.”

Finding a Route to “Yes”

In her article “Saying NO and Staying Happy,” Hall recounts how she spent a large part of her life allowing herself to be trampled upon by others because she was simply too nice to say “no.”  She tells us that she often acceded to requests unwisely.  Soon after, she would realize that agreeing was not in her best interest and would wish that she had been sufficiently assertive to turn down the request.

Hall seems so proud that she managed to come up with a polite way of saying “no”:  “Thank you but that doesn’t work for me.”

While I applaud Hall’s efforts to stop being a doormat, it seems to go over her head that, however you say it, no is no.

Hall wished to escape a pattern of “putting my own needs aside in order to take care of the needs, wants, or desires of someone else.”  While this may be a wise course of action when one feels imposed upon by a neighbor, coworker or Great-Aunt Bedelia, I submit that it has far less validity in the realm of providing excellent customer service.

Although Hall doesn’t specifically mention CSRs in her article, a disappointed customer is unlikely to be a repeat customer no matter how politely you tell him or her “no.”

Often, what the customer is requesting may be beyond the authority of the CSR to provide.  In such case, the only hope of satisfying and retaining the customer (short of a supervisor contravening company policy to mollify an upset customer — a course of action that can often be justified, by the way) is for the CSR to get inside the customer’s head.  The CSR needs to ask open-ended questions to probe the origin and nature of the problem at a depth beyond the partial information that the customer has provided.  It may very well be possible to salvage the contact (and the customer relationship) by pinpointing the true place that things went awry.  Frequently, the customer will be satisfied with quite a bit less than he or she initially requested.  Customers stewing in their own juices while waiting on hold in a phone queue or in a store line may well exaggerate their sense of being wronged and thus be moved to ask for the world on a platter.  You might be surprised to learn that, more than anything else, customers want to be listened to, to be understood and to experience a bit of human empathy.  And if you “throw them a bone,” so much the better.

Remember, no matter how polite your CSRs are, “no” is still “no.”  Much better is finding a route to “yes.”


The Peppermint Purse

peppermint purse

We were out to dinner at a popular family restaurant chain a few nights ago when we happened to sit near the front door, in view of the “claw game” that kids play to try to win a plush toy or other trinket.

Playing this type of game, which is rather ubiquitous throughout the United States, involves inserting coins and then using a joystick apparatus to first move the claw over the desired prize and then lower the claw to grab onto it.  At that point, the claw picks up the prize, raises it over the delivery slot and drops it to be received by the player.  The claw then resets by moving along its track to return to its initial position.

The only problem with this game is that it takes both luck and skill to get that claw to grab the prize firmly enough to successfully carry it to the delivery slot.  More often than not, the claw brushes over the prize, grabbing only air and delivering exactly nothing to the player.

Those who have played this game on the midways of carnivals and county fairs know that the apparatus is often set to virtually guarantee that the player does not win the prize.  Both on the midway and in truck stops and restaurants, I have seen players who have not been kids for some time plow a roll of quarters into these games in an effort to “win” the one prize on which their hearts are set.  More often than not, they come up empty handed after paying for the prize that they did not receive several times over.

These mechanical amusements are legal in public places because they are considered “games of skill” rather than gambling.  I would suggest that one could dispute this assertion.

There were quite a few families with children eating in the restaurant the night we were there, and of course many of the kids wanted to try to win a toy.  While we were enjoying dinner, we were treated to quite a show.  It seemed that every family approaching the game won a prize.  If they tried two or three times, they won two or three prizes.

We were smiling as giggling kids and happy families trooped past our table on the way out to their cars, children proudly bearing their stuffed toys.  As it was just a few days before Christmas, we could not help but wonder whether the vendor had reset the apparatus to aim perfectly straight and true.  Surely all these families didn’t happen to possess just the right eye-hand coordination needed to perform the difficult feat of hooking a toy.

As if that weren’t enough, we were flabbergasted when one couple not only successfully grabbed the desired toy for their child, but also managed to cause the claw to knock over a second toy so that both of them were dumped into the delivery slot.

The lucky family started to leave with their booty when my wife began admiring one of their prizes, a plush purse colored and shaped like a peppermint candy that she thought would be perfect for our little grandniece.  She accosted them as they walked by our table, asking if she could buy the prize for three dollars.  They generously said we could have it for one dollar, as that’s all it cost them to win it.  My wife was delighted with their generosity.

As fate would have it, the restaurant manager observed this little transaction.  After the winning family left the premises, he walked over to our table and gave my wife back her dollar.

After all my years as a manager, I consider this tiny gesture to be one of the finest examples of customer service I have witnessed.  I have no doubt that the manager played some part in ensuring that the claw game delivered to the holiday shoppers coming through.  But to take the extra step to refund the dollar paid by my wife goes above and beyond.  And it only cost him a dollar.

I am willing to bet that the manager took that dollar out of his own pocket, not from company funds.  As a result, he has earned a repeat customer for his (frankly) relatively low-quality establishment.

I fully plan to use The Peppermint Purse as an example the next time I have an opportunity to train employees on principles of customer service.  I never cease to be amazed about how the smallest things can have the greatest impact.

Then, on Christmas Eve, it happened again.  My wife had ordered two pair of shoes online and they arrived in the mail.  To our surprise, when we opened the package, we found that both pair were defective.  One of those “pairs” consisted of a right shoe of one size and a left shoe of another!

My wife went online to complain.  The company has a policy that the purchaser must pay the postage for returning any goods.  Well, I’m sure you can understand our position that we shouldn’t have to pay the return postage when the goods were defective.

On the company’s website, my wife was able to live chat with a customer service representative.  When she explained the situation, the rep offered to have two new pair of shoes sent out immediately.  As for the defective shoes, not only were we not asked to pay the return postage, we don’t have to return them at all.  The rep suggested that we donate them.

So, let’s summarize what the company accomplished here:

  • In light of its own error, the company relaxed its return postage policy so that the wronged customer would not incur any expense.
  • Immediately offered to make the situation right by replacing the defective merchandise.
  • Furthered its positive image by suggesting that the defective merchandise be donated to people in need.

The end result:  A satisfied customer is a repeat customer.  And I now have yet another example, which I shall call Left Shoe, Right Shoe, to share with my future employees.

I believe that those who say that customer service is horrible in this country have got it all wrong.  Sure, there will always be employees who don’t care and who are merely going through the motions.  I blame this on employment mismatches (faulty recruiting practices and ineffective or nonexistent employee development programs), insufficient “soft skills” training and squeamish management who use every excuse to avoid the disciplinary process.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Managers tend to latch on to the horror stories, much like the claw reaching for the plush toys, expending all their energies on finding ways to correct errors after they occur.  This is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.  Better results, with fewer customers lost to agent errors, could be obtained by following the examples of those who are doing it right.

Mr. Peppermint Purse and Ms. Left Shoe, Right Shoe have valuable lessons to teach us.