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This article was published on October 30, 2013

The customer isn’t always right: Why standing up for your employees is good for business

The customer isn’t always right: Why standing up for your employees is good for business
Jim Belosic
Story by

Jim Belosic

Jim Belosic is the CEO of ShortStack, a self-service custom app design tool used to create apps for Facebook Pages, websites and mobile Web Jim Belosic is the CEO of ShortStack, a self-service custom app design tool used to create apps for Facebook Pages, websites and mobile Web browsing.

Jim Belosic is the CEO of ShortStack, a self-service custom app design tool used to create apps for Facebook Pages, websites and mobile Web browsing. ShortStack provides the tools for small businesses, graphic designers, agencies and corporations to create apps with contests and forms, fan gates, product lines and more.

In a world where customers’ criticisms can reach thousands of their “friends” in an instant, companies are (rightfully) worried that one disgruntled customer can wreak havoc on a brand – at least temporarily. Managers must walk a fine line between satisfying customers’ expectations and protecting their team members from what can quickly become hostile encounters that could be damaging to morale.

So what’s a manager to do? Force employees who work in customer service to put up with rude customers who aren’t afraid to hide behind the anonymity of social media?

Absolutely not.

Here are four things to think about before you side with a customer.

1. Employees will be loyal to you if you’re loyal to them

And this is a method that is good for the bottom line.

About 20 years ago, the Harvard Business Review published a study that looked at how employee satisfaction affects a company’s profit and growth. The study may be old, but the conclusions are still relevant today: Employee loyalty is a direct result of customer satisfaction.

“Value is created by satisfied, loyal, and productive employees,” according to the report. It’s sort of circular reasoning but if your employees know that you have their back — especially when it comes to supporting them in their dealings with difficult customers — they are more likely to sell your company better and provide better customer service, which in turn should result in growth and profits.

Consider the case of the airline company RyanAir. The European airline is known for both low fares, surly employees, and an even surlier CEO. A few weeks ago Colin Shaw, a customer service expert, wrote a piece for LinkedIn Today in which he suggests the airline is in decline.

“Customer Experience is about a mindset. It’s about a mission to design and create a deliberate experience for the people that frequent your company,” Shaw wrote. “But the mindset at Ryanair is combative with customers, made obvious by [CEO] O’Leary time and again. If this is the example he sets for his team, what results can you expect from the employees?”

Coincidentally, in September the company announced that it may not achieve its profits forecast. Some food for thought, of course.

2. You can tactfully tell disgruntled customers their criticism of your employees is unacceptable

During the most recent US Presidential election, everyone (I don’t think this is an exaggeration) witnessed at least one example of a “friend” posting or saying something unbelievably rude to another friend on social media. It’s a safe bet that many of the things these people wrote were not things they would say to anyone’s face.

People behaving badly online is nothing new, and it’s certainly not limited to social media. Employees who work in customer service must occasionally deal with disgruntled customers who flame out at them, writing critical (or worse) emails, Facebook posts, and tweets.

As the CEO of a company where half the staff works in customer service, I have to step in every once in awhile and let users know that the way they are talking to my employees is unacceptable. If a user wants to criticize the product we make, that’s one thing, because the product doesn’t have feelings. But Jane and Jessica and Amy, three of our stellar agents, do!

As the CEO, I believe in the adage “sh** runs uphill.” At the end of the day, everything people complain about with regard to the company is my fault. So if someone is being rude to someone who works for me, I will gladly jump in and take the name-calling.

3. You can broker solutions that work for your customers and your employees

Generally, all it takes to make a disgruntled customer “happy” is money. I’m quick to offer refunds when it’s obvious that we are a bad fit for a certain customer. We offer a free plan and encourage all new users to test out the platform before they commit. (Having a free plan, especially in the software as a service space, is a great way to reduce refunds and disgruntled people.)

But many of our users skip the free option and sign up for a pro plan only to get into the nitty gritty and realize it’s not the right platform for them. They get frustrated and occasionally lash out at the support agents.

In this situation I acknowledge their frustration, ask them what they want us to do to make things “right.” If they demand a refund, I give it and then suggest they use a different platform.

Your company should want customers who share your goals and views. If they don’t, then you shouldn’t worry about losing them because at the end of the day, their criticism is distracting and reduces productivity.

4. Sometimes the customer has to go

Evernote CEO Phil Libin recently penned a great Inc. Magazine article about how he “loves” his angriest customers because they provide insight about his software. He also admits the complaints can sometimes be demoralizing for the people who have to deal with them, which is why he trains new team members how to read the criticism without losing their minds or taking it personally.

While Libin doesn’t say this, there are also some customers who simply are not a good fit for a particular business. At ShortStack, we occasionally get complaints from customers who have unrealistic expectations — i.e. perhaps they expect support services to be available 24/7 even though they are free users, or they want services that we don’t provide and are outraged when we let them know that we can’t actually build a product for them. In that case, we cut them loose — politely, of course!

Every business could probably trade horror stories for hours, but we’re curious to know about your company’s policy for dealing with dissatisfied customers. What do you do when you find yourself caught between the people who pay you and the people you pay?

Image credit: zimmytws/Shutterstock

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