Tough Customers

Structured Solution

Matt Friedman, 29, CEO and co-founder of Wing Zone, has witnessed the stress that angry customers can cause in his employees, who take the majority of the company's food orders over the phone. Friedman says his entry-level employees, who are mostly college students, just don't have the experience needed to handle these customers. Therefore, they've been trained to hand off overly demanding customers to the nearest manager right away. Wing Zone's managers then put the complaints back on the customers, asking them how they'd like the company to handle the problem. When both parties can't find some middle ground, managers refer the customer to the corporate office's toll-free number and Web site to file a formal complaint.

After 30 fruitless minutes on the phone with the angry customer who threatened him, Girau referred her to the corporate office. "I know that I will eventually deal with this customer again," he says. How does he get through these difficult situations? By staying calm in his responses. "I say what I can do, but sometimes no answer will satisfy a customer," Girau says. "[Customer complaints] are just part of the job."

Mark Csordos, 30, founder and president of Arden, North Carolina-based Customer Service Training Essentials Inc., says that dealing with demanding customers gets even tougher when leaders try to treat all customer complaints equally. "Some complaints are justified, and some are not," Csordos says. "If employees get reprimanded for an unjustified complaint by an unreasonable customer, they start to resent it because they did nothing wrong.

Friedman knows it can be hard for managers to deal with the frustration, especially when they know they're right. There are times when he has to explain why making the customer happy is the best thing to do. "Managers take it personally," he says. His advice? Make the customer happy, but also let the employees know that you support them.

Girau, who's the point man at corporate headquarters for complaints that escalate, thinks the company's strategy works because entry-level employees know how to handle angry customers, managers understand what they can offer and have the flexibility to problem-solve, and complaints with no easy solution can be routed up the food chain. Having procedures to follow at the store level, Girau says, has made life easier for everyone-including owners, whose input he now needs only in the most extreme cases.

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the May 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Tough Customers.

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