How to Succeed in Sales -- Part 4

Dealing with Customer Complaints

by Martha Nelson

Wouldn't it be great if everything in the selling game went so smoothly that our customers never had problems? Ah yes-you've worked hard to open those new accounts and now those happy, smiling people will just keep giving you great orders without any effort on your part. Of course you know that's just a dream!

We all have to deal with problems in our business and for sales reps the most critical type of problem is customer complaints. How we deal with these can make or break our business.

The People We Serve

As in most situations, prevention is the best cure or at least will save you loads of time and emotional energy. If your day to day service is exceptional, your customers will have less reason to complain and will be more patient with you when things do go wrong. In his book, The Guide to Greatness in Sales, Tom Hopkins says, "Always keep in mind that any recognition you earn in your sales career is a compliment you receive for serving the customers better than most salespeople do. The key phrase is 'serving the customers.' In sales your income is a direct reflection of your ability to serve your clients. Never forget that. Don't let your ego get so blown out of proportion that it interferes with the level of service you give." Hopkins teaches his students to refer to their clients as "the people I serve." 1

Okay, so you're giving the best service you can. But then something DOES happen which causes your customer to phone the office-dissatisfied, frustrated, perhaps even angry. What do you do? Don't pass the buck. If you're not there to take the call, get back to them as soon as possible (same day) and do all you can to sort it out.

Sounds simple,right? But so many reps are afraid of this type of encounter-so they put it off. This only makes things worse-because the customer is now not only upset but ignored by the very person who sold them this product in the first place and whose role is to cut through that red tape. How you respond in these situations will either strengthen or weaken your position with that client. Don't be afraid of hearing them vent their frustration or anger-they need to know that someone is listening, and you're in a better position to listen than someone else in the office because you know them. So jump in there to the rescue and show yourself for who you can be: their hero!

When the problem wasn't your fault (e.g. your own supplier let you down or customs held up the delivery), explaining this to the customer in a personal way usually defuses the situation. You can afford to risk overcommunicating. Apologise, explain the reason for the problem, promise to correct it, update the client about each step, see that it is corrected, and then always follow up with a phone call to be sure the customer is now satisfied.

Try to See It Coming

Another way to avoid problems for your customers is to try to "see it coming." Often letting them know ahead of time that a delivery will be delayed makes it easier for them to accept the situation or make other arrangements. Here's an example. Our jewellery company decided to change packaging suppliers a few months ago and I was asked to source the new U.K. supplier for our new look boxes. It was educational for me to be in role reversal now; others were trying to sell to me. After seeing samples and quotes from the main box suppliers I settled on one whose quality and prices were best, and in particular whose lead time for orders was 6 weeks vs. the 12-16 weeks quoted by others. I'll call this company Quality Boxes.

We placed our first box order on 1 August, with a promise of them being delivered by the end of September. As we approached our busiest time of year, our old boxes were going quickly. To make a long story short, after different excuses each week Quality Boxes told us in mid-October that we wouldn't have our boxes until early November-12+ weeks from our order date! Until then we had thought our new boxes were actually in the U.K. but waiting for printing inks, etc. Instead Quality Boxes confessed that they weren't even in the country and the delays were caused by problems with their own manufacturer in China letting them down.

I was furious. Not only were we nearly out of packaging for our products which needed to be shipped, but we had promised several big clients that their specially boxed orders would be on time. I then had to scramble to get substitute off- the-shelf boxes to cover our custom ones which were late. By this time every other box supplier was tied up with their own clients, so I didn't have many options. I wrote a very direct fax to the Sales Manager of Quality Boxes letting him know that- had he been up front with me in September- it would have been much easier for us to go to Plan B. His true excuses were understandable if frustrating-but the delay and covering up of the real reasons made the situation even worse-at a time of year when none of us had time for this!

However, after receiving my fax, Quality Boxes did come through. They arranged for our substitute boxes and promised to airfreight at least part of the order earlier than expected, at their own expense. They also communicated with me nearly every day as the details for this first delivery were finalised. Although I was disappointed by the "crisis", how they finally responded to the crisis has given me confidence that we can continue working with them for future orders. Had they not been so attentive it would have been their last order from us. Another part of this story is that-in the midst of the crisis-when I faxed five other of the top packaging suppliers for an emergency off-the-shelf order for boxes (an opportunity for new business which they had been interested in earlier that year) only one bothered to even respond to my fax! Frustrated as I was with Quality Boxes, this was some indication of the service offered by those other companies in their busiest season! (Anyone can give good service in the slack season!)

So you can see that problem times CAN be good times too. The Quality Boxes scenario gives credence to a famous sales motto: "Underpromise and Overdeliver." Be realistic about what you can deliver-then overdeliver-and your customer can experience your good service instead of broken promises.

In the next issue, let's look at chronically complaining customers, personality clashes and what to do if your company creates more brush fires than you're able to put out.

1. Tom Hopkins, The Guide to Greatness in Sales, pp78-79, (HarperCollins, London, 1994)

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