Win the Customer, NOT the Argument!


Mark Matteson
Contributing Writer
Get More of the Right Things Done In Less Time!

I walked up to the gate to confirm my flight home to Seattle. The man at the desk was nice enough. “Yes, you are on this flight. We board in forty-five minutes.” I grabbed a quick bite to eat. When they announced boarding for first class, I handed my ticket to him and the scanner made a funny noise. That’s never good. “Oh, you are not on this flight,” he said a little embarrassed. There was a long line of people anxious to get home. The airline had changed my flight to a later one without telling me. A supervisor was called to sort out the challenge. I was informed my bag was loaded onto the later flight and if I wanted to get on this flight, my bag would come in later AND I would be in coach in the back of the plane.

Expectations are tricky things. When our rights are violated, we get frustrated, angry, fearful, indignant, outraged, and even sad. The Supervisor kept telling me what I didn’t want to hear. When I explained my position, he repeated himself, word for word, only louder, three times. It felt like a Monty Python skit with John Cleese. Exasperated, I finally said, “So being loyal to this airline for thirteen years and earning platinum status means nothing? Moreover, it seems to me, you are more concerned about winning the argument than winning the customer! How are you going to make this right?” After 15 embarrassing minutes (it felt like an hour), he found me a seat in first class, 3A. However, my bag would have to be delivered to me the next day. I thanked him and got on the plane feeling like I had just lost a prize fight to Mike Tyson. How could he have handled it differently?

1. The customer isn’t always right, but he or she is still the customer. He never said We screwed up. You have a right to be frustrated. I am sorry this happened to you. We will figure it out. Let me add some miles to your account. (He had the authority to make an effort with discretionary rewards.) Had he done that, I wouldn’t be writing this.

2. Take the long view. How much is a customer worth to the airlines? What are the hard costs of losing a customer? I spend between $25,000 and $30,000 a year with this airline. If I take my business elsewhere, I also take my ill feelings with me. The average unhappy customer tells 15 people about their frustrations. People like me tell thousands with one blog post or seminar. Experts tell us it costs seven dollars to GET a new customer and one dollar to KEEP one.

3. Make the customer happy and move on. The million-dollar question is What would you like us to do? Few companies ask it. Most people with unmet expectations just want to be understood. They want any kind of effort of good will: a coupon for a free meal, some miles added to their account, an upgrade, anything that says we value you as a customer and are so sorry this happened to you! The Ritz-Carlton authorizes its employees to spend up to $2,000 to make a single customer happy on the spot. How much authority do your employees have?

4. Change your policy to people. When you tell me your policy is more important than solving my problem, you tell me you don’t care about my loyalty or business. You are more interested in being right than making me happy. You tell me you haven’t empowered your frontline people to solve problems at the source. The secret is People over Policy, NOT the other way around! Train your people in soft skills and give them the authority to say yes. Listen Actively, Echo emotions—Sympathy or Empathy—and make an effort to make it right. That’s all any of us really want. Make the customer happy and move on.

5. Learn to love complaints. A complaint means we still want to do business with you. You are still in the game. If you don’t solve your customers’ problems, they will do a few things that will cost you and your business more than you might think:

a) He or she will tell friends, family, and complete strangers how awful your service really is. Ill-will is expensive to your bottom line.

b) She or he will quit doing business with you forever. In my case, $30,000 in airline tickets annually times 10 years is $300,000! Is winning the argument worth that? The upgrade cost how much?

c) He or she can create a PR nightmare that may make its way to the media and cost you a small fortune in legal fees in the long run.

6. Be like Nordstrom. The policy is simple. Rule #1: Use your best judgment. Rule #2: There are no more rules! Empower your people on the front line to make decisions that delight the customer. Simple, but not easy.

7. Go the extra mile. Be proactive; reach out and follow up. It’s good business. Reward and acknowledge the efforts your employees make to delight the customer. Great employees aren’t born; they are molded, encouraged, nurtured, and recognized. William James said, “The deepest craving in the human condition is the need to be appreciated.”

Mike Tyson (or was it John Cleese?) delivered my bag the next day. I signed for it and thanked him. He never said I am so sorry this happened to you. Instead, he told me about his bad back and his bad day. He just wanted the same thing all of us want, appreciation, respect and understanding; would you rather be right or happy, right or rich? Let’s start losing the argument and winning the customer…please.


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