There's a right - and wrong - way to handle angry customers

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Yesterday, I took my Yukon into my local GMC dealer for an oil change and to find out why my engine light was on.

Now, I’m a loyal customer. I bought the vehicle there and I’ve always had it serviced at the dealership, even knowing the oil change costs more and takes longer than at the local quick-change outlet. The service writer also recommended, based on the mileage, that I get the transmission fluid changed. Didn’t plan on spending that, but I took his advice.

But, then, I lost it when he had me sign the work estimate and parenthetically noted there’s a charge of $39.95 plus repairs to determine why the engine light was on.

“Are you serious,” I asked. “What’s with that?”

His first answer was a gem: “We have to pay our mechanic for the time to determine why the light is on.” I countered with a simple: “Don’t you think that, for a regular customer, you’d look at that as just a cost of doing business?”

His next defense did me in: “No. Look, we have to charge that because when we tell you why the light is on, you could go down to some local mechanic to get it fixed (and a lot cheaper, I’ll bet).”

Now, not feeling like a valued customer and angry about it, I bitched, he didn’t respond, so I signed and headed for the waiting room. But that’s when I decided to share an old list of steps that he could have taken to turn a customer’s complaints around.

Step 1: Don’t become defensive. Instead of just defending the charge and being obviously irritated by my complaint, he could have focused on the problem and demonstrated a commitment to good customer service by offering something like: “I’m sorry you have a problem with this, so let me see if there is anything we can do about it.”

Step 2: Listen before speaking. Allow the customer to explain his view of the problem i.e., he bought the vehicle here; always services it here; no grounds to think vehicle would be taken to another mechanic; obvious loyal customer. Listen carefully.

Step 3: Has the customer clearly explained his complaint? Before suggesting anything, make certain you clearly understand exactly what is upsetting the customer. If it’s not clear, ask again.

Step 4: Ask for the customer’s help. When a resolution isn’t immediately obvious, you can always ask: “What do you think would be a fair solution?”

Step 5: Keep any promise. Don’t promise to do more than you have the authority to do, but do what you say you’ll do. If you need to go higher up, tell the customer you want to solve his problem, but you’ll have to get back to him ASAP.

These days, customer loyalty isn’t automatic, yet every dealer wants to nourish it. That’s why every customer should be considered gold by every member of the dealership at every level. In this example, simply following Step 1 would have diffused the situation by indicating that, at least, some attempt would be made to fairly solve the problem. In the end, the charge was taken off the bill because the cost of the repair was considerably higher.

But the truth is the episode wasn’t pleasant and might very well affect my sense of loyalty going forward. The $39.95 pales in comparison to the lost revenue if a good customer decides to buy the next vehicle from another dealer.

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