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The Response to Difficult Customers

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | January 20, 2016
As executive director of Main Street, I have been responsible for the majority of these newsletters and the articles contained in them for about seven years now.  Most of these articles are about: 1. Ways to improve your business, 2. New business trends, 3. New technology/financing tools, 4. Upcoming events/activities, 5. Decision making/motivation techniques or 6. Statistical reporting.  This one is different, more a response that I hope we can use to turn a potential negative into a positive.
Businesses deal with negative individuals on a semi regular basis.  It’s just a given that if you deal with the public, not all people will be full of sunshine and rainbows.  However, with the advent of social media and a more, shall we say “selfabsorbed” culture, negative encounters can be an all-too-common occurrence.   I’m not talking about the “I’m having a bad day” type of encounter for this new, though.  I’m talking about a mind-set that manifests itself in some “unique” communications.
Over the last several years, Emporia has become home to a variety of destination businesses, unique concepts and modern entrepreneurs that are willing to take risks and offer something new to the community.  When businesses attempt to do something new, raise a quality standard, or target a niche market, it is sometimes met with curiosity or excitement.   Other times, the injection of something new into a marketplace can cause trepidation, which sometimes manifests itself in the form of negative consumer communication.
I asked the  basic question: how do you best respond to difficult customers that are complainingabout the core tenets of your business?  People can complain about things like hours, signage, store layout, etc. while providing areas of constructive criticism.  People that complain about the usage of a building, the high quality of products, general pricing strategy or the interior design (this place is too nice) are generally providing less than constructive criticism.  There are some responses that may, I repeat MAY improve the tenor of the dialogue.  Trying to produce positive outcomes is important for many reasons, but I fully recognize that it isn’t always possible.
1. Recognize the importance of a business to the economy, and communicate that fact.- Every business creates jobs, tax revenue and economic activity that is vital for a community to survive and thrive.  Why would you want anything but success for a local business when we ALL benefit from its relative successes?
2.  Talk about how your businesses serves your niche market; including in general terms who that market is.- Most entrepreneurs survive through specialization.  If they carry general merchandise that everyone carries- they can eventually be undercut.  A lot of entrepreneurs have a well defined business plan that identifies their target market.  A conversation that centers around “our target market is- but we welcome anyone that likes our products“.  You can talk about how certain niche groups are undeserved and that businesses may already exist that fit the consumers perceived needs (even mentioning those businesses by name).
3.  Discuss your business’s ability to pull from beyond traditional market boundaries.- Improving the local economy means pulling people from the larger geographic region into local businesses. Letting customers know that your businesses is serving a defined market, but that you also enjoy support from the larger surrounding area (and that those consumers may have different expectations) is important in communicating your business context.  The people inside a market trade area may have certain expectations, but destination businesses must often exceed those expectations to remain relevant.
4.  Talk about yourself as a consumer, and your passion for your business type.- You always have the ability to talk about yourself.  Entrepreneurs generally start businesses because of something they are passionate about.  Saying “this is what I love, and I’ve found a lot of people that also love what I love” is important.  You can even encourage a “me-too” attitude by communicating that there may be other opportunities for business types that they might be interested in pursuing as an entrepreneur.  You love your concept, but they may like to create something different.
5.  Highlight the integrated nature of your business as part of a “community” of businesses.  Sometimes consumers see the parts without the whole.  Consumers don’t always understand that modern entrepreneurs comprehend the absolute need to work together.  So, when a consumer doesn’t like the lack of an item or the scale of product/service pricing, you can always point out other businesses that DO fit their model adding “(insert businessdoes a great job and we don’t want to compete with them- we want to fit a different demographic“.  You can also talk about pricing, staffing and service in the context of giving.  Part of the reality of local businesses is that they get asked for donations A LOT, and locally owned businesses donate a MUCH higher percentage of their gross sales locally.  Your pricing helps you support local charities.
6.  Communicate your values as they pertain to your business.- This is especially true in price baseddiscussions.  It’s okay to say “we buy our products from local vendors because we believe in ethical labor standards- it’s not as cheap as slave wage labor in a third world nation, but that’s not really what we want to support.”  Let’s face it- super cheap consumer goods don’t generally have a great track record of creating wealth with their workers, social good or environmental sustainability.  And, craftsmanship still counts.  It’s okay to talk about your products, their quality and the people that your purchases support, adding “I know all of this because I think it’s important, and I care about what I sell.”  It really doesn’t matter if you are talking about food, retail items or craft beer…  That statement can resonate.
7.  Listen and reflect.- Not all gripes are bad.  Some can actually help you spot problems and intersect with opportunities.  So, be careful not to dismiss out of hand.  In instances where you are getting feedback that is actual useful, remember to use reflective listening techniques; i.e. “If I’m hearing you correctly, I think you are saying _____.  Please expand on that.”  No one is perfect, and if someone is making a suggestion on how to improve processes, that might be something to consider.  However, if they are simply demanding that you change your concept or value system to cater directly to them, you might see number eight below…
8.  Know when to walk away.  Again, negative interactions are a fairly rare occurrence when judged against every other interaction/person you typically encounter.  But, when you work with the publicthey do happen.  I am personally a “fixer”, but I’ve learned that sometimes things just can’t be fixed.  In those instances, instead of hashing things out, a simple “I think we are just going to have to disagree on this point; please have a nice day.” is probably your best course of action.  Some people truly see the world through the lens of their wants/needs/desires without consideration for the world or people around them.  They truly don’t understand (or care to understand) the reciprocal nature of a community relationship.  In those instances, there is no “win“.  So, rather than escalate the situation, it’s better to simply break contact.
I hope these statements help you in your interactions with the public.  Negative interactions are ararity, but the infrequent (but often dramatic) nature of the the interaction can knock a small business person, or their employee, “off their game”.  It is our hope that a few of these suggestions can help you formulate an adequate response, should a negative situation arise.  But, the best defense is the active creation of a culture that truly values small businesses and entrepreneurship.  You have the power to do that every single day in who you support, where you chose to spend your dollars, how you volunteer and what you advocate for.  Although there are some that will never “get it”, you can sway the majority by how you choose to interact with your community.
It sounds strange, but these types of growing pains are actually good for a community.  We are drawing in more people than ever before to our unique businesses, and your Emporia Main Street will continue to strongly advocate for entrepreneurship in our community while finding you the resources you need to help you succeed.  You continue to help strengthen our local economy, create jobs, and build the unique community we all want.  It is a wonderful thing to hear out-of-towners stroll downtown and talk about all the Emporia businesses they wish they had in their community, and that is a testament to your hard work and creativity.  Additionally, it has been wonderful to see businesses improve collaboration between “like” business types (some would call these “competitors”) for the good of their entire industry and the community at large.  Don’t let a little negativity get you down…  With a few basic responses, we know you can continue your positive trajectory.

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.