Jul 23, 2015 23 Comments

Recently I felt I had reason to complain (who, me?) to a museum that was closed on a Tuesday (the only day I was in town), given the 2000 miles distance and tight business travel. Afterwards, I emailed them suggesting that to take a day off in the summer tourist season was to lose credibility with people (like me) who had long supported their cause. If retailers, airlines and hotels can run every day of the week why do museums (and some Nature Reserves – equally irritating) need a day off to attend to the facilities?

I thought my protest had value. Their response said that they understood my disappointment – good start – but then proceeded to patronizingly justify their action with details about all their operational needs.

A few years ago, when given a two door rental car instead of the four door car I had reserved and paid for, I was told by the agent, “You don’t understand my problem, Mr Baldwin”. He was right: not only did I not understand his problem, I really didn’t care. I was trying to imagine the week ahead with a 2 door car.

Customers don’t care about your problems unless and until you show genuine interest in theirs.

Defending the company against customers!

Have you ever noticed that when they receive a complaint from a customer, the overwhelming majority of retail employees go into “defense” mode immediately? They may deny the situation (“I don’t think we would have told you that”), blame other factors (all the growers’ plants are stressed this year”) or suggest the customer to be at least partly responsible (“well, the label says ‘Shade’”). In one quick sentence you may hear DDJJ: Denial, Defensiveness, Justification or Judgementalism – all over a $20 hanging basket!

It is so easy to slip into the habit and I can be guilty as charged, so I have to have my own “validation” app switched on from dawn until dusk myself.

Empathy, not sympathy

Validation does NOT mean you agree with what the customer says or asks for. Often there may be a wide gap, but it does mean that you respect the customer and recognize that they have value. Empathy is the word, not sympathy.

Validation is such a powerful tool for any sales/service organization for two reasons:

1)  because recognition of the customer’s reason to be unhappy is essential for any possible rescue of the situation

2) because almost no one does it. (I have had finger-wagging lectures from airline staff for showing up late at a gate and brazen denial from hotel salespeople even though I was paying their wage with mine.)

So, why validate?  First, it recognizes the customer’s disappointment or failure to get results or for wasting their time or money.  Secondly, until the customers feel that their situation or problem has value they are absolutely not listening to anything you might say to correct the situation. (Until they know they are going to get a replacement hanging basket any advice on proper watering is totally lost.)

Customers often return to a store upset and tense. They are using their valuable time to correct something they think is wrong or to achieve what they originally paid for.  There’s lots of research showing that “complainers” don’t really want to go and shop elsewhere, they just want their failure-to-achieve recognized, given value.

Saying, “Oh no! Those are beautiful plants, I can see why you are upset, let’s get you another one” (empathy & resolution) instead of “Did you water it?” (suspicion & blame) will go a long way to reducing that tension. The sooner you can defuse the tension, the higher the likelihood that you will retain future sales from a frustrated customer.

Finally, unlike many items consumers buy every day, garden retailing deals with emotions and aspirations, so the validation must be genuine.  “Oh you are right, that IS a misleading sign, I didn’t see that but I’ll change that right now, thanks so much for pointing that out”. There’s nothing worse to a disgruntled customer than insincere sincerity.

Consistently training your staff on how to sincerely validate customer complaints instead of slipping into “DDJJ” will pay dividends in customer satisfaction and retention in the long term.

Have a wonderful day!

Photo credit:  Ryan McGuire

  1. Tina
    Jul 23, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    Ed and I were discussing this exact thing with Bill McCurry, columnist in Grower Talks, over dinner this evening. It costs so little in money to do, and even if you to have to eat a little humble pie, it goes a long way in establishing a real relationship with a customer.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jul 24, 2015 at 3:22 pm

      Tina, good thought, humble pie is cheap at the price! The competition (ie almost retailers, big and small) is sooo bad at this evewn just a small helping of humble pie can be your differentiator!

  2. John Crook
    Jul 23, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    In my humble (and sincerely validating) opinion, that’s your best article ever, Ian. This will be in every team member’s mailbox tomorrow, and followed up with discussion at our next staff meeting.

    I appreciate how an employee thinks they are being loyal to the company by defending it, but in reality that are denigrating the company… and me… in the eyes of the customer.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jul 24, 2015 at 3:27 pm

      John, why thank you sir, I really value your validation! Glad it was helpful. Emotions run high in the plant world don’t they? I am always delighted to see a team that is proud of their product but, as several people suggest in the comments here, that can bring its own set of challenges!

  3. Cyndee Carvalho
    Jul 23, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    I just read this and thought, YES! This sums up a consistent problem I’m trying to fix at the information counter where returns are made. I’m hoping this helps get the point across…Perfect timing, going out in tomorrows employee newsletter!! thanks Cyndee

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jul 24, 2015 at 3:29 pm

      Cyndee, thanks so much for your comment, glad to help. Let me know if/how it works for you. My best to the Alden Lane team.

  4. Kellee O'Reilly
    Jul 24, 2015 at 6:16 am

    When a customer has a problem, the retailer has a choice to make: the staff response can either make it worse, make it right (often begrudgingly) or MAKE IT BETTER. Tina & Ed are right on target with the comment above — it costs so little to MAKE IT BETTER, it’s an opportunity for a magical connection with a customer – to “turn that frown upside down,” to be a little hokey.

    I had to spend nearly an hour with FIVE different people on the phone recently to correct a $100 error with a large well known hotel company (a company where “Platinum status” is held and significant annual dollars are spent.) By the end of the experience, it was about the principle — we wanted to know just how far they would drag out a Platinum customer over that comparatively minor dollar amount. I was shocked at how far “up the food chain” we had to go for resolution.

    Which brings me to a question: does every front line cashier in your business know exactly how much they can spend to “make it better” with a customer before they have to call in a manager? What’s the dollar threshold where they can just do it? (e.g., give away a $10 gift card, replace $20 worth of product?) We’ve all been on the customer side with that feeling of dread when the front-line staff person says skeptically, “well, I’m going to have to call a manager…” If the FIRST person who touches the problem can turn that frown upside down, that’s the fastest path to a happier customer. Being clear about those boundaries can help alleviate staff concerns (will they get in trouble if they “give it away?”).

    A commitment to being a company that MAKES IT BETTER is a marketing investment. An investment in being a company people enjoy doing business with: customers measure us not by how we behave on a normal day, but rather how we recover when things go awry. When we’re sincerely sorry … as opposed to #SorryNotSorry.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jul 24, 2015 at 3:38 pm


      Great input, many thanks.I know we share many travel horror stories.

      I love your concept of “Investment in making it better”; now there’s another low cost differentiator. I wonder how many (how few?) companies who call themselves “full service” even have a place for your concept on their Org Chart?

      Given the fact that most business owners accept that the best reference is by word of mouth and now social media, why do they get chintzy on training and personnel development? They blow 48% of sales on inventory and then begrudge 0.2% of sales on training – I never understood that. Once again, thanks for your excellent contribution here.

      1. Kellee O'Reilly
        Jul 24, 2015 at 5:14 pm

        I would love to propose the idea of a “Customer Experience Officer” (CXO) as a critical position on the org chart — someone who has the ultimate goal of creating as frictionless and positive an experience as possible for customers, across ALL sectors of a company. Too often operational conveniences for the company are designed without regard for how it impacts the customer experience. Aaaah, a girl can dream!

        1. Martin P
          Jul 31, 2015 at 5:10 am

          Great Idea Kellee

  5. Martin P
    Jul 24, 2015 at 7:12 am

    Ian and Company

    A great article and feedback. Customer Service is the core to all businesses yet we have allowed it across 99% of our country become almost extinct. I agree this is one of Ian’s best articles ever and I will be using it with my team

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jul 24, 2015 at 3:41 pm

      Martin, thanks for your thoughts. It was surprising to me that with the intense competition for the consumer’s dollar since the crash of 2008, personal service quality did NOT improve as I experienced it. In fact, I think the bean-counters won and dumbed it down even further to save precious pennies. So it really can’t be hard to out-serve most competitors now.

  6. Ron Vanderhoff
    Jul 24, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    Just a simple “I understand”, preceded by a nice smile and some good eye contact.

    99% of the time the next step is “let’s take care of that right now”.

    And at the conclusion, maybe another nice smile and a “thank you for your business”.

    All delivered with honest sincerity.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jul 25, 2015 at 6:41 pm

      Ron, as always your thoughts are right on the mark, simple, logical and very applicable for any team. Thanks for taking the time, hello to the Roger’s team!

  7. Kathy Dickens
    Jul 25, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Loved the article and the feedback. Can’t wait to discuss at our Dept Head Mtg next week! Changing our mindset from “this customer is taking advantage of us” to ” how can I make it BETTER so they have a good experience and want to shop here again & again” might be challenging for some.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jul 25, 2015 at 6:44 pm

      Kathy, thanks for your kind comments and good luck! Try to get your team to relate to their own shopping experiences when they are customers, using their wages to pay another’s wage. How do they want to be treated?

  8. Jere Stauffer
    Jul 26, 2015 at 5:47 am

    God morning Ian and all. Very good article and it will get out to the Stauffers masses. Two year’s ago Jesse Gilmore, our Director of Retail Ops proposed a ‘No Hassle Returns’ (NHR) policy. As part or our strategic planning for our Home & Garden Stores we implemented that in spring 2014. Prior to our NHR program we had multiple complaints each week around returns that worked their way up to the Director level. Spring 2014 we had ZERO that got to Jesse. The stores were handling returns MUCH better. HUGE WIN!!! For the customers, the store personnel, and for Jesse. It was also the year we had the highest volume of winter damage returns on trees, shrubs, and perennials. It was the second coldest year on record, by 1 average degree day. We could not have planned a better roll-out time than spring 2014.

    Our policy dealt with the largest share of the returns, those were the customer walked in and said “I’m not happy, here is your product (dead or alive, broken or whole) and my receipt and I’d like a replacement or my money back. We still want the manager to help with claims without product and with product but without a receipt. We promote in in our advertisement and heavily in the stores.

    The customer isn’t always right but it’s never in both of your interests to treat them like cheats, scam artists and thieves when they walk in your door. Kelly I really liked your idea of approaching each situation with an ‘i CAN HELP MAKE IT BETTER’ attitude.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Jul 26, 2015 at 1:27 pm

      Jere, good afternoon to you Sir!

      I love (and may borrow anonymously if I may) your story. Tip of the hat to you and Jesse for pushing this through, I know it isn’t easy with multiple stores and the potential for different cultures/agendas being developed by people (did you just feel validated..?). But when you have a motto of “We delight shoppers” you’d better (delight shoppers)!

      I always wonder how some disgruntled employee of a certain airline feel about being the face of “The Friendly Skies” as they leave their hotel at 4am to go to work…?

      Thanks for sharing your inspiring example.

  9. Ian Baldwin
    Jul 27, 2015 at 11:01 am

    Great sharings here, who else has an example of a “win” in customer validation? There are so many negative examples in life, who has a positive one?

    1. Frank Benzing
      Jul 27, 2015 at 1:31 pm

      …Great topic and insight!

      I recently heard a group of employees bragging about a customer with one another. What struck me is they were looking at the good in that customer and it made me feel that that team tends to act that way with other customers.

      Ron – Your point on non-verbal communication is a good reminder — a smile — in person, over the phone, etc.

      1. Ian Baldwin
        Jul 29, 2015 at 11:13 am

        Frank, thanks for weighing in, nice to hear a positive story about team members. I do think that people enter this industry excited and positive and I am not sure that is a given in some other retail channels. I am traveling a lot this month and have my Validation Scanner set to high alert; we shall see!

  10. Lex Stevens
    Jul 31, 2015 at 7:59 am

    I scanned this post yesterday evening while waiting for someone I was having dinner with. When I got home, I had received an email from an online customer who was unhappy with the product they had received. Before I responded, I read your post thoroughly. I have yet to hear from the customer, so I am not sure what he thought about my response.

    The problem I face today as a small hardware store owner is the changing attitude that customers have about their role in retail. Many young people have no reservations about buying something, using it and returning it. Others seem to think that return policies do not apply to them. I have twenty years of sales data. Returns hovered around $2000 per month for a decade, and then trebled in the past three years. Target and Home Depot can eat that kind of loss, but I cannot.

    I see an increasing number of ‘hostage takers’ in return situations. The online customer “is giving me an opportunity to redeem myself.” I suspect that is a threat to give me negative online reviews. In the past two years I have had customers throw tantrums, threaten to push everything off the front counter, threaten to come back at night and break my windows or call the police for cheating them. In thirty years in the hardware business, I could count on hand how many times these things have happened in the previous years.

    I tell my guys that the best way to prevent a return is to not let the item out of the store in the first place. Make absolutely sure that the customer is buying what they need. Items that are returned often we no longer carry. Customers who return everything, we just run off. All these things leave us with the time and energy to service the majority of our customers well. Yesterday, I went to Home Depot to buy something for a customer who really, really needed it, but who couldn’t wait for us to order it in.

    As a customer, I have found that if I explain my dissatisfaction clearly in words — such as I am frustrated, or I am annoyed, etc — and asking the clerk or salesperson “how can we resolve this,” I get much better results.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      Aug 13, 2015 at 12:16 pm

      Lex, sorry (sorry/am sorry!) for the delay, we took a few days off from the electronic world. You make some good points especially about your team making absolutely sure the shopper’s project or intended outcomes are agreed between the customer and your team member before anything is put in the cart or basket! That of course is potentially a winning card for the full-service local retailer compared with a national chain and “return” costs could even be seen as part of your marketing budget as it is tied up with your image as a company.

      The on-line aspects challenges us all and I see more retailers changing a re-stocking fee to cover some of the cost or a “no-return” lower price in the first place (United Airlines charge $200 to change a flight you have already paid for…!). My data from our clients show returns eating up way less profit than bad buying or merchandising, and all inventory losses are still well below advertising costs. I don’t know if you carry green or live goods but many such stores lose more from bad watering in one weekend than from returns in a few months. But returns are an emotional issue and the sooner your team can defuse the customer the better! Thank you for taking the time to add to the comments, best wishes, Ian

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