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Naked apologies

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There's an art to pleasing unhappy customers.

Ben Bowen | January 22, 2013

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Ben Bowen (no relation), the landscape manager at Portland’s Ross NW Watergardens. He’ll be contributing to our blog, From the Field, more this year. I encourage you to check out more of his stuff here.

Is there a business that doesn’t have to deal with unhappy customers?

I asked myself that question and immediately thought of my local humane society. Who could possibly be upset with the folks who rescue abandoned cats and dogs? Curious, I looked up some reviews online. Sure enough, they had a high number of glowing reviews – and a handful of dreadful reviews from genuinely upset customers. If a non-profit that saves puppies can’t keep all of its customers happy, what chance do the rest of us have?

Managing your customers’ complaints isn’t about your landscaping expertise or even your business acumen. The whole thing relies on your interpersonal skills. Here are three simple tools to get you headed in the right direction.

1. Look in the mirror. It’s easy to say that you make mistakes. But can you own up to specific errors? When confronted by a client who is unhappy with your work, assume the client is correct. Try to understand how you or your company caused (or at least contributed to) the client’s issue.
Haggling over blame is a waste of your time, energy and any goodwill you have built up with the client.

2. Master the “naked apology.” This is not nearly as exciting as it sounds. Be quick to apologize. And if you are going to swallow your pride, you might as well make it work for you. Give a “naked apology” – no justifications or explanations attached. Just say the issue is your fault, you’re sorry and that you will make it right. Clients will respect you for it.

3. Examine your bedside manner. A recent study found that while all doctors make mistakes, not all get sued for malpractice. Which doctors get sued? The ones who make mistakes and had poor bedside manner. Doctors who took a little extra time with a patient, could make a joke and appeared to care were much less likely to be sued – even when they made major errors.

We can all learn from this. Take just a little bit of time to really talk – and listen – to clients. Be nice. When problems arise your client won’t feel that she needs to punish you with a bad review – or worse.

Yes, customer complaints are an unavoidable part of business. Sometimes it’s clear cut: A customer has a problem that you can fix. Other times you find yourself with a problem customer – a client you just can’t seem to please. Either way, if you approach your client’s issues with skill and art you can keep them, not just as clients, but as happy clients.


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