Customers: the troublesome five

Marshall Field, founder of the Chicago-based Marshall Field and Company department store chain, once quipped: “Right or wrong, the customer is always right.”

By Eileen Lee

Like it or not, dealing with challenging customers is part and parcel of any frontline job in the retail industry. Being in such a customer-centric role requires tenacity and a good attitude, especially since the objective is often to deal with and manage the expectations of others to create a memorable customer experience.

To be successful in this competitive environment, patience and understanding are the keys to knowing consumers along with the behavioural patterns that drive their decision-making processes.

Nonetheless, handling difficult, angry or even manipulative customers is usually infuriating, frustrating and time-consuming. Win half the battle by knowing how to recognise such people; the rest depends on choosing the right approach. With a positive attitude, things might not turn out as bad as they could be.

The Diva
Defining characteristics: Difficult, demanding, at the high end of fashion with flashy clothes and the occasional pair of huge sunglasses.

Warning: May try everything but buy nothing.

On a shopping trip to Barneys, celebrity Jennifer Lopez got tired of staring fans and asked her personal shopper to close the store so that she could browse in peace.
Diva shoppers like J. Lo may find initial pleasure with you at their beck and call but regardless of their demands, you must maintain a service-oriented attitude. With divas (and wannabes), you need to be assertive, not confrontational. The idea here is not to make the customer feel bad but satisfied instead.

Bryan Lee, a fashion boutique shop assistant, says, “I used to have a customer who would try on many outfits and complain about their designs. By being extremely patient with her, she relented slightly and became less difficult as she started to get embarrassed about her behaviour. In the end, she stopped being a diva.”

The Cheapskate
Defining characteristics: Unassuming, the only way to spot them is when they compare your price tags with their list of similar products from other stores.

Warning: High possibility of haggling even with fixed prices.

With inflation and a recession these days, more shoppers are turning into Cheapskates. To win the loyalty of the Cheapskate, think about adding value to their experience even if your store can’t offer discounts or rebates.

Be firm about your prices if they’re fixed but offer freebies if they buy many items instead. A friendly and helpful sales attitude will greatly help in making them return shoppers.

“I have customers who keep coming back even though our items are not competitively priced because they know they can expect good service from us. We even remember their sizes and pick out pieces for them,” says Karen Ng, a retailer in Far East Plaza.

The Lost Soul
Defining characteristics: Browses aimlessly in stores, non-committal mumbling if approached.

Warning: Totally clueless. Assisting them will be time-consuming.

Lost Souls are best left to wander and explore your store. Be ever-ready to help however since these shoppers are looking for a sense of experience or community.

Although Lost Souls make up the largest segment in terms of traffic, they contribute the smallest percentage of sales. However, once they start demanding attention and begin questioning incessantly, they can be a real voice for you in the community if satisfied.

As always, be polite and accommodating. Keeping this up will promote your store’s reputation and you might even net a sale from the Lost Soul.

The Complain King
Defining characteristics: Loud and whiny nagging, very poor manners (if any).

Warning: Will complain about anything, rarely satisfied.

The Complain King is probably the most common type of challenging customer. These attention seekers will bother you to no end pointing out all the faults in your store, products and even your choice of perfume.

As best as possible, listen without interrupting while addressing issues when appropriate. Never look or sound impatient. Doing so will just add another hour to the monologue.

Avoid stabbing the Complain King with your pen. Keep happy thoughts in your head and a smile on your face. Often, they only want to be heard so just offer a listening ear without being defensive. A popular method of appeasing them is with cash vouchers. Otherwise, offer to investigate and amend their grievances where necessary and you’ll soon be rid these most troublesome of shoppers.

The Aggressor
Defining characteristics: Always spoiling for a fight, short fuse, easily provoked, usually rowdy.

Warning: Will create a huge scene if given the chance.

Aggressors make even the hardiest retail professionals feel threatened, awkward, angry or even fearful. Steel yourself and give the Aggressor time to let it all out. Remain calm, resisting the temptation to kick him in the groin. Through your actions and words, let him know you have every intention of providing him with the best service despite his behaviour. Project a professional image and prepare for damage control.

When the Aggressor realises he cannot intimidate you or incur your wrath, he will eventually back off. However, if he remains implacable or the argument degenerates into physical contact, don’t hesitate to call security.

Shanice Lee, who works as a customer service officer at a credit card company, has the following advice: “My way of handling emotional customers is to address them by first name. It adds a personal touch to the communication and usually helps in calming them down.”

Simply put, dealing with difficult customers is something of an art that involves negotiation, tact and a whole lot of patience. Perfect it with experience and you’ll find that not only will you gain these customers’ satisfaction and trust, you’ll also give them an incentive to return.

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