Friday, May 05, 2006

Handling the power of negative customers

A few posts ago, I wrote about how hanging around negative people all the time can screw up your life.

Well, here's an article about a similar idea, which I admit I hadn't thought about for a long time. But I think it's applicable in a lot of situations.

Over on Seth's Blog, written by Seth Godin, he takes on the challenge of dealing with the fact that if the customer is always right (and we know they are, right?) how do you deal with those few customers who simply are never satisfied?

You know the type, and if you don't, Seth has a few examples.

What I found so refreshing, and common-sensical, was his simple advice.

While the customer is always right, if you do come across one who is wrong, they're not your customer anymore. Fire them!

Fire them?

Fire them. Politely decline to do business with them. Refer them to your arch competitors. Take them off the mailing list. Don't make promises you can't keep, don't be rude, just move on.

If you've got something worth paying for, you gain power when you refuse to offer it to every single person who is willing to pay you.

That's along the same lines as Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble's decision to quit hanging out with negative types and spend more time with happy people. Sure, he got some negative feedback for saying it, but it makes sense.

I remember a few years back, I was working for a member-services organization. And while the vast majority of our members were decent, hard-working types who appreciated our programs (even when we screwed up badly, as long as we apologized) there were a few who were unbelievably bad to deal with.

They were among the most unpleasant people I've ever met.Nothing was ever good enough. They always knew the way that things should have been done (but only in hindsight, never in advance.) And while it seemed obvious to everyone that they could never be satisfied, they ended up taking up vast amounts of staff time dealing with their issues.

The negative emotions caused by problem cases like this are powerful. They can quickly infect an entire office, drive those dealing with them to distraction (or worse) and rarely come to a positive outcome. As always, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, even thought there's no hope of fixing it. The best you can hope for is that they get tired of bitching and go away.

Looking back on how we handled those situations, I know we were too "nice" to the worst offenders. We should have "fired" them, as Seth suggests. The damage they did to our staff and our organization far outweighed any possible benefits gained by trying to meet their impossible standards.

Ironically, many of the worst offenders are still members there, despite everything. And they continue to be as dissatisfied as ever. Meanwhile, a lot of good people have been driven out of the organization over the years.

Of course, "firing" customers, or your members, is a last resort. If you resort to such drastic action over simple complaints or disagreements, you'll pay a high price in lost business and badly damaged reputation. But its not hard to see examples in your own business where a clear-headed approach to dealing with those negative influences in your life makes sense.

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