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Attitude Adjustment: A Customer Service Reality Check

'If it weren't for the customer, this would be a great business' is an old joke. But it could signal trouble.

I bet you've said this before: "If it weren't for the customer, this would be a great business." I have. We say it as a little joke, an eye-rolling one-liner when we have "one of those" customer moments.

Jokes are funny only because they're partly true. And where there's the smoke of truth, there's often fire. This sort of attitude may be a signal that your business is missing opportunities to better serve your customers. Here’s a look at the folly behind this flawed mind-set and how to stop it in its tracks.

Companies do a lot of things for their own convenience -- not the customer's. Step into the customer's shoes, and imagine how you'd feel in these scenarios:

  • It's two minutes before closing. You sprint to the store, only to have the person inside shrug, point at the clock and continue locking the store door.
  • You dial the company's number and get a brusque "hel-lo" from someone you've clearly interrupted in the middle of a far more compelling activity and who's annoyed by the interruption.
  • You say, "I'm not sure, just looking around," and the salesperson visibly loses interest in you.

I could go on: the phone pitch aimed at qualifying you in or out, the obstetrician who wants to schedule the Caesarean on Thursday before Friday's golf outing, the clerk who mumbles "thanks for shopping at XYZ" while chatting on the phone.

You might be thinking, "That's retail or consulting. I know better. I really don't do that sort of thing."

Let's keep going. Do you ever:

  • Screen out low-quality leads for the sake of efficiency? What that says is, "If I can't get in your wallet in X seconds, then you're not worth my time." (See related column: "Sales Efficiency Can Hurt Your Marketing.")
  • Say, "We don't do that here," and just leave it at that? Not only is that insulting to the customer, it translates as "You should've looked this up before wasting my time." But it assumes you know every possible variation of the customer's situation.
  • Find yourself with a chatty customer and think, "Is this guy going to make up his mind sometime this year?" The customer hears what you're thinking -- it shows up in your rolled eyes, your fake smile, your heaving sighs.
  • Tell customers, "Please give us two days' notice," when an hour would do?
  • Say to yourself, "Well, if that's what he wanted, why didn't he say so in the first place?"
  • Say to yourself, "Why do I seem to get all the stupid clients?" If you're getting all the stupid clients, take a look in the mirror. Either you really do attract stupid people, or your definition of "stupid" is faulty.
  • Say to yourself after a customer changes his or her mind, "Just make a decision, already."

All of these are opportunities to say, "This would be a great business if it weren't for the customers."

It's easy to see what's going wrong here. We construct comfortable worlds for ourselves. When a customer upsets our idea of the way things should be, we don't like it. And it leads to resentment. But if we can see the situation from the customer's point of view, we can generate empathy that could lead to a better business outcome.

Here are three ways to help you thwart the "if it weren't for the customer" blues. Next time you encounter a troublesome customer, remind yourself:

  1. "I wonder what she's thinking."
    The next time a customer does something you consider odd, ask yourself, "I wonder what she's thinking?" Resist the urge to blame, and banish the eye roll. Replace these with simple curiosity. If you can figure out what's behind her behavior, you'll not only know how to react, you'll empathize. And she'll appreciate it.
  2. "It's not about me."
    When customers are angry at you -- furrowed brow, disapproving tone, maybe even yelling -- remember that what you're hearing isn’t people who are angry at you, but people who are angry while standing in close proximity to you. In other words, it isn’t about you. It's about them. You're just picking up the flack by being in the neighborhood. If you don't take it personally, then you can empathize with them, and help them get what they want.
  3. "There are few degrees of separation."
    You've heard the theory of six degrees of separation, the number of links separating you from Kevin Bacon and every other stranger in the world. These days, that number feels far smaller. That annoying customer may be likely to know someone you know. Word gets around exponentially faster nowadays. Treat this customer like you'd treat a friend. Odds are good that you are you will not be far off.

Adopt these tactics, and your business can be great -- because of the customers.

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