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Customer Service Expert Shaun Belding

How do you face down a fire-breathing dragon, a.k.a. the "customer from hell"? Shaun Belding tells you how to bravely handle irate and unreasonable customers

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Your customer's face is completely covered with red blotches. Steam rises from his scalp; smoke pours out of his ears. His tone is measured, barely escaping pursed lips and gritted teeth, as he tells you exactly where he'd like to stick your product. This guy is about to blow, and every person in your store and the surrounding three counties is going to hear how you screwed up. At this point, it's not so much what you did or didn't do to turn Mr. Joe Nice Guy into the customer from hell: It's how you calm him down, turn unreasonable to satisfied, and save the relationship.

This is where Shaun Belding and LESTER come in. A veteran retail performance consultant, Belding has created a system to help you deal with those customers from hell. We've asked Belding, who's also the author of Dealing with the Customer from Hell: a Survival Guide and founder of Kanata, Ontario-based Belding Skills Development Corp. (http://www.beldingskills.com), to share his peacekeeping tactics with us.

Entrepreneur.com: What is your definition of a "customer from hell"?

Shaun Belding: It's anybody who's behaving unreasonably. That would be the really simple answer. The point I make [in the book] is that it's not necessarily an unreasonable person, but it's somebody who's behaving badly or unreasonably.

Entrepreneur.com: Why is understanding unreasonable customers important to the overall well-being of both you and your employees?

"Most unpleasant customers are not unreasonable people. They are unsatisfied people who are behaving unreasonably."

Belding: We're taught, as businesspeople, how to interact positively. We're taught how to smile and sell and how to be nice. And then all of a sudden, we're faced with a very negative situation. It's very traumatic, and the experience sticks with people a long, long time. And in many cases, the experience actually has an effect on the way people conduct their business in the future. It's really quite amazing how much of an impact this can have on people.

Entrepreneur.com: You say you can't win with a customer from hell, but of course, you don't want to lose either. What can you hope to accomplish?

Belding: What you hope to accomplish is to have everybody walk away from the situation feeling satisfied and that the right thing happened. [It's the] classic win-win situation. And really, in everything but the rarest of cases, it's possible to achieve that.

Entrepreneur.com: You have a chapter in your book called "Preventative Medicine." What are a few tips from that chapter-things you can do to prevent conflict before it happens?

Belding: Philosophically as a business-in any business-you should have the customer make the rules; you shouldn't make the rules. As long as you have rules that you're going to force your customer to abide by-"That's the way we do things and if you don't do it that way, then we're not going to do business with you"-then you're going to have problems. Examples would be a store that has no return policy or a service repair company [that won't] say when they're going to arrive, forcing [a customer] to sit home all day long. If you want to avoid challenges, the best preventative maintenance is to find out what your customers want and deliver it exactly and precisely. Don't make the customers follow your rules; you follow their rules.

Entrepreneur.com: What is LESTER? How can this help you diffuse a bad situation?

Belding: LESTER is a process revolving around two principles. The first is that most unpleasant customers are not unreasonable people. They are unsatisfied people who are behaving unreasonably. The second is that in most cases, once we take the time to fully understand why this person is agitated and behaving the way they are, then the problem becomes much easier to solve and far less traumatic. I ask people in seminars, "After a customer walked away, have you ever said, 'What's that guy's problem?'" And everybody laughs and says yes, but the thing is, you should ask that question while the person is there.

In LESTER, the "L" stands for listening, which is perhaps self-evident but there's an awful lot of ways to do it wrong. The "E" stands for echoing, which is reflective listening where you reflect back to the customer the issue as the customer perceives it. [That way you can] make sure you understand the issue, and it lets the customer know you heard it. The customer won't feel the need then to repeat himself or herself over and over again and stay agitated. The "S" stands for sympathizing, which is really validating the customer's emotional state. It's simply saying, "From what you've told me, I can understand why you're frustrated." People like to hear that. When somebody says, "Wow, I hear where you're coming from. I understand that," it takes a lot of the confrontational aspect out of the conflict.

The "T" stands for thanking a customer. When most people are dissatisfied, they don't tell you about it; they tell everyone else in the world. So these nasty customers, as unpleasant as what they say or do may be, are giving you some pretty valuable information. And it's genuine to be able to say "Thanks for telling me about this. Thank you for giving me a chance to fix it." The "E" stands for evaluate. Theoretically, if you've gone through the first four steps, you've been able to bring the customer's emotional state down to where it's not a fight anymore; it's a discussion. The evaluation stage is where you can work with the customer to come up with a solution instead of butting heads. And then the "R" simply stands for responding. Once you come to a decision, do it. Don't just say, "OK, that's great," and stick it on a shelf.

Entrepreneur.com: What advice would you offer a business owner who wants to train his or her staff to handle these situations?

Belding: The best advice I can give an entrepreneur who has employees is not to underestimate the impact that negative customers or experiences have on performance. If your employees are complaining about a customer from hell, help them deal with it because that's going to limit their performance if they're not able to deal with it.