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Putting Employees Before Customers

Putting Employees Before Customers
Image credit: Shutterstock

“The customer is always right,” is a familiar mantra to many customer service-focused businesses. But is it true? Sometimes, customers are unreasonable or even abusive. What do you do when one of those unruly clients has faced off with an employee?

“You have to look at the value that your employee brings to the equation. Sometimes, it’s better to sacrifice one customer than lose a valued employee,” says Nancy S. Ahlrichs, strategic account manager at Indianapolis, Indiana-based human resources consulting firm FlashPoint. Ahlrichs outlines several steps to manage customer-employee conflicts and decide when to put employees first.

Give employees some slack to help unhappy customers. Ahlrichs says employees can more quickly defuse tense customer situations if they can appropriately respond to a complaint without the delays of seeking manager approval. Talk through some potential conflict points – for example, customer returns in a retail business or unavoidable delays in a service business – and give the employees some approved methods of recourse. Perhaps they can accept returns up to a certain dollar value without getting a manager’s approval or offer to reduce a fee or cost if service is not delivered as expected. This lets the employee engage with the customer as a peer.

Related: How OfficeMax Failed on the PR Front...Twice

Remove the employee from the situation. If the situation seems heated, remove the employee from the situation, and work on solving it yourself. This relieves the pressure on the employee, who can’t supersede your decision, anyway. In some cases, this is simply a matter of handling a transaction. In others, it may mean moving an employee off of an account or service role if the matter can’t be resolved easily.

Always listen to both sides. Even when the situation seems clear, be sure to listen to both sides, even if it means meeting privately with the employee after the fact. Ahlrichs says it’s important that employees know that you have their back and want to hear their perspectives. This also gives you an opportunity to discuss how the situation could have been handled differently and help the employee overcome any negative feelings about the situation or the customer.

“Too often, managers will reflexively respond negatively if the customer complains. Avoid that. This is an opportunity to improve your business,” Ahlrichs says.

Replace abusive customers. Good employees are just as difficult to find as good customers, Ahlrichs says. If a customer is abusive or unreasonable, you need to decide the point at which you risk losing valuable talent. Abusive customers fuel turnover, which can hurt your business far more than losing one difficult client.

“We’ve all fired places that have high turnover. When you lose a good employee, you also risk losing the customers that employee has relationships with. So, when one employee goes, you could lose many customers along with that employee,” she says. In those cases, make your break with the customer and direct your energy to replacing that business, she says. 

Related: Why Stellar Customer Service Is Key to Building Your Online Brand

Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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