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Who’s your Gladys? Give employees the power to solve tough customer problems

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in Leaders & Managers

The recession has caused the rise of a new class of “hypersensitive consumer,” according to a new survey in Retail Week. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of respondents say they would leave a store if they encountered poor service.

“When customer dollars are scarce, it’s the companies with exceptional customer service that weather the storm,” says Marilyn Suttle, author of Who’s Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer Into Your Biggest Fan.

The book tells of Gladys, a cranky 87-year-old customer of Professional Movers in Detroit. When her marble tabletop was broken on moving day, she became the toughest customer the company ever faced. Unable to repair it, the salesman personally escorted her to pick out a new tabletop and delivered it to her house. Now Gladys is the company’s most vocal advocate in the community.

The message: This kind of extra effort can turn a disgruntled customer into a strong source of ongoing referrals.

And disgruntled employees can do more damage today than ever. In just a few minutes, they can text, tweet and Facebook their rants to erase years of built-up goodwill.

Suttle says the value of the customer should be engrained from the top down. One way: Encourage every employee—no matter where they’re at in the organization—to take ownership of their roles and responsibilities with customers.

Advice: Think creatively about how you can turn your disgruntled customers into delighted ones.

Example: Preston Wynne Spa in California asked its most unhappy customers to become “secret shoppers.” That helped the company turn a critical eye on its service and turn negative customer experiences into positive ones.

Tip: Don’t underestimate the importance of training employees or offering consistent service.

“When customer service is arbitrary, you get arbitrary results,” says Suttle. “Plan your service processes, train your employees, and then refine the processes based on customers’ responses.”

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