He was losing it. He tried to turn away to hide it, but Paul caught a flash of building rage on his face.
“That was painful to watch,” he said through gritted teeth in an unnervingly level voice.
“You said it would be OK,” Paul started, reeling from the reaction, but he was cut off by the steadily rising volume of the other man.
“Just stop,” the irate man spat, “I have to walk away before I…” he trailed off as he stormed over to the chain link fence that separated his front yard from a drainage ditch.
Paul couldn’t imagine what the end of that sentence could possibly have been. Stunned, he stood silently for a moment and watched the man’s knuckles turn white as he gripped a fence post and stared into the distance. This one was certainly going to be a challenge.
This, quite surprisingly, was an actual customer service interaction. It was dramatic, it was unexpected, and it was even a bit frightening at points, but it was, at the end of the day, a fairly low-stakes customer service situation gone awry. Many customers surprise business owners with patience and kindness in the face of a problem, and they are often easily swayed into the promoter category if the problem is remedied correctly. A few customers, however, erupt at the slightest sign of turbulence during service and can seem too hostile or stubborn to salvage. While they may not seem worth all the pain and effort, when handled correctly, these individuals often tend to surprise business owners in quite a different way.
Paul was an eager twenty-something running business development for a portable storage and moving franchisee. In his territory’s infancy, there were only three or four team members, so everyone did everything from sales and marketing to truck driving and manual labor. The company’s wheelhouse was one to two bedroom apartments and small homes that could fit in just one of their containers. This particular customer caught them off guard by placing what was by far the largest order to date. He needed four containers-worth of storage packed and stored and then moved to a new home. Even with all hands on deck, it was a logistical nightmare. As backbreaking as it was, though, all the overwhelmed team could do was smile and put in a couple fifteen-hour days. They were very green and in desperate need of customers.
Servicing the order started out relatively smoothly. The third-party labor help showed up on time, and the pace was ahead of schedule. Paul had no prior experience driving trucks or hauling large cargo, but he was one of only two employees insured to make deliveries at the time. Delivering the second and third storage containers had fallen to him. Despite a week of practice with the rig, he still had some difficulty backing the 5,000lb trailer into the angled driveway.
“This grass here is firm, you can roll over it with the truck if that helps,” the owner shouted to him from his lawn.
“Are you sure?” Paul was skeptical. Property damage was always a big concern on these jobs.
“Go for it!” The man seemed pretty certain.
It was an 8”x5” patch. Another driver measured it eventually out of curiosity. An area the size of a large envelope was all it took to turn this seemingly agreeable homeowner into a seething wildcard. One of Paul’s tires had spun out in the lawn and brought the whole job crashing down around him. He was bewildered and at a loss, and it would turn out that the customer needed some time to calm himself. What Paul and his team did next, though, would rewrite the likely outcome of this upsetting scene.
As powerful as “I’m sorry” is, sometimes it does not get through the first time. Paul offered some free products and asked how he could make things right.
“You can’t, can you?” The customer seemed to have made up his mind, and eventually refused to even speak to Paul, shutting the garage door on him as he pleaded for a resolution. Paul was beside himself, but he knew he had to think of something. He informed a superior of the situation immediately, and they got to work on a solution.
The next day, Paul’s boss showed up to the customer’s house slightly earlier than the scheduled loading time. They figured Paul should hang back until the customer had time to regain his composure. His boss was armed not with another apology but with a grass fork, the correct strain of grass seed, chocolates for the customer’s wife, and a discount on delivery services. He was willing to get down in the dirt on his hands and knees to resolve the problem, and with this sign of contrition, the man started to realize that maybe he had overreacted. Just a little.
When Paul eventually rejoined the servicing efforts, he not only received several warm handshakes and compliments from the man who could barely stand to look at him the day before, but he was pleasantly surprised with gleaming 5-star reviews and testimonials online. The customer event went on to refer some new business to the company.
No matter how hopeless a customer service situation seems, there is always a chance for redemption. When an apology and the regular course of action do not do the trick, it might be time to get creative. The greatest detractor a business has ever seen may become its biggest advocate, even if its the man who cares too much about his lawn.