In general, I am a big advocate of the aphorism that the customer (or client) is always right. But what is missing in that bald statement is that not ALL customers are right for YOU.
I’ve had a couple of examples in the last several years since I became an independent. One recently, which prompted this blog, and one a while ago. In each case, a client decided after having the service that they were unhappy; fortunately they communicated their unhappiness and I could take action.
In the first case, a person attended a class I ran and then – three months later – decided that they didn’t get value “as I didn’t know enough before the class”. If you are like me, this can be a very frustrating experience. First and most importantly, I don’t like to disappoint a client, and if they say so at the time I can deal with it. Second, I hate, HATE giving money back. But that’s exactly what I do, with a smile, with no questions asked, no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. In full, and usually unprompted. This is the ‘smile while they kick you in the teeth’ maxim. And whilst revenue is hard to earn (and sometimes keep), in most circumstances returning the money AND closing out the relationship is a good investment. Even though it galls me, and it makes me upset; I still do it with a smile.
I know that such relationships, if not ended then, will often become more, not less, toxic and the client is better off with someone they can work with. In this case, I didn’t end the relationship immediately, but when the person booked for the same course again, I did. Once bitten and all that!
So how do you decide if a refund or a discount, or making good the problem in some other way is the right way to repair or build the relationship with your customer? Or should you end it? To me this is the key question. I don’t want to lose hard won customers, or their value to the business, which over a lifetime can be substantial. But, and it’s a big but, nor do I want to invest effort in customers who are never happy, satisfied or always feel hard done by. So to decide I look for signs. Often there are clues. They want to do business on their terms; for example I’m often asked “Can I pay when I attend the course”. The answer is ALWAYS, politely, no. That came about when an individual was afforded that privilege and TWICE failed to show. She asked a third time, on a public comments page of the web. I replied privately by email, saying that I had had bad experiences and now made an inviable rule. She responded – back on the public web – with how important she was, trustworthy, world-renowned, etc, etc. Again I replied, this time in the comments on the web, that she was the person whose behavior TWICE had resulted in the rule becoming an inviable one. No more issues. I always hesitate to make such ‘debates’ public. I often think overnight – a very good rule for me (and perhaps you?) – before responding. But sometimes private or quiet hints don’t work.
In the most recent instance I had done some consulting for a new client. We agreed ahead of time what needed to be done and also that all software, logins, passwords, and product keys must be available before we started.
From there it went downhill. I had late night voicemail the night before “I’m at the computer store and I’ve thinking about buying MS Office” – we had discussed using Apple Mail) and then, even later another VM “Never mind, I’ve decided”. With hindsight, these should have rung alarms. When I show up the following day, it turns out that the operating system upgrade isn’t there (even the emails with the instructions and product codes weren’t readily available) and the MS Office was a student version which needed validation before it could be downloaded. So we start the download for the current version of the OS – which is free and doesn’t require a validation code – and the system says ‘About five and a half hours’. We open the MS Office, the student ID isn’t acceptable, calls to MS support and viola, download underway ‘About an hour’. In the meantime I fix the email problem, repair a database, educate the client on issues with the various packages, etc., etc. In all about three hours, (I had estimated two for the upgrades) and clearly the situation wasn’t ideal but there was little more I could do.
Five days later – late on a Saturday night (another red flag) – I get an email which lets me know that the Office install went well, a few other issues and questions and that ‘However, I feel $XXX.00 is pretty steep for calibrating my monitor and standing by why I talked to customer service.” I agreed with her, that if I had indeed done that it would have been “steep”. And I listed all the things I did do in the time I was there. I also told her that her full refund check was already in the mail. Sometimes it is the only way. And the right way.
So what are the lessons? The customer IS always right, but the should not always be your customer. Be aware and look for signs that a particular relationship is not meant to be. And if it does go wrong, do all that is necessary to fix the problem. If that means a full refund, then do it with a smile. And if needed, end the relationship politely but firmly.