Tag Archives: customer service

Customer Service is a Strategy, Not a Slogan

Peter DeHaan: Author, Blogger, Publisher, Editor writes about Customer ServiceBy Peter DeHaan

Does your organization make customer service a priority? I expect that it does. In fact, I suspect that the phrase “customer service” is found somewhere in your mission or vision statement, etched on a wall plaque, proclaimed in your marketing material, and oft orated by upper management.

However, as is often said, “talk is cheap” and “actions speak louder than words.” So the question becomes, do you actually provide quality customer service or just talk about it? Has the vocabulary of providing world-class customer service been bandied about so often that you—and the entire organization—have been falsely convinced that it is a reality, when in fact it has no basis in truth?

Customer Service Failure

In my article, “A $175 Oil Change,” a local car dealership charged $175, accomplishing no tangible results other than changing the oil. This was the only impetus I needed to return to the trustworthy comfort of my local service station, where I continue to be a loyal customer of their car care services. Unfortunately, the day that I dreaded came last summer 2011, when they informed me that repairing my heat-producing air conditioner was beyond the scope of their services; I would need to take the car to the dealer.

With trepidation, I walked into the dealer’s brightly lit and tastefully decorated service department. As I walked up to the “customer service” desk, a representative, clad in business attire with tasteful tie, greeted me by name. I explained the problem and, knowing their mode of operation all too well, asked for an estimate. With a confidence-building smile and positive words of assuredness, he sent me on my way.

His phone call came shortly after I returned to the office: $1,575! Following my dumbfounded silence, he launched into an extended explanation, mixing mechanic jargon and automotive terminology— which I doubt even he fully understood—seemingly aimed to intimidate me into accepting their costly diagnosis. According to their investigation, a heater problem was also uncovered and somehow related to the AC repair. True, for only $980, I could fix just the AC, but then it would be over $1,200 to go back later to repair the heater.

“Let’s get realistic,” I challenged him, determined to not be victimized again.

The representative apologized that he had no other options and admitted that his “hands were tied.” I declined to authorize the repair and made arrangements to pick up the car. He kept repeating, “I’m sorry; I know I’ve lost you as a customer.”To be successful, customer service needs to be more than just a slogan, more than mere lip service. It needs to be a strategy Click To Tweet

Customer Service Success

It took some time, but eventually I heard about a full-service garage with a reputation for honesty. I took the car in. Sitting in a small and dingy office, with a dated décor and amidst organized clutter, I explained the chronology of events, sharing the dealer’s written estimate. The owner of the garage chose his words carefully, “Well, they could be right, but I think we can get it working for much less.” He had a $185 solution that he wanted to try. Plus, if he was wrong, he would apply that amount to the repair the dealer recommended (for which his normal price was only $800). As far as the heater issue, he found no justification for any repairs.

I followed his recommendation. The $185 AC repair proved to be accurate, keeping us cool through a hot and humid summer; the heater worked as is without incident throughout that winter.

The dealership had talked ad-nauseam about their top-notch customer service in their ads, promotions, mailings, and sales pitch. They even put on an impressive front, but there was no substance; to them, customer service seemed to be maximizing the repair bill. The garage, on the other hand, didn’t talk about customer service; they just did it.

How to Lose at Customer Service

A second pair of customer service stories, from several years ago, are equally illustrative. Although my family is not often prone to renting movies, we did have a membership at an outlet in a nearby town. My wife and I entered their store, with a two-for-one coupon in hand and the residual amount from a gift certificate on account. Our expectation was that we would each pick a movie and pay for them using the coupon and credit balance. We were wrong.

The first sign of trouble came in the checkout line, when the clerk could not pull us up in their computer. “We got new computers,” he said curtly as he continued typing in vain. After much too long, he impatiently demanded, “When were you last here?” Our answer irritated him. “Well, that’s your problem,” he announced. “We gotta put ya in again.” He took all of our information and had us sign an ominous contract.

As he scanned the DVDs, I handed him the coupon. “We don’t accept these,” he declared disdainfully. Dumbfounded, I asked why. “It’s for Acme Video Hits and we’re Acme Video Plus, now.” I pointed to the in-store sign displaying Acme Video Hits. “We got bought out and they voided all the coupons. It happened three months ago,” he explained exasperatedly, as though this was common knowledge of which only ignorant people were unaware; “We haven’t changed our signs yet.” He typed some more. “That will be seven dollars.”

“You charged us the price for current releases,” I informed him, pointing to a sign for 99 cent rentals of older movies. “They changed that, too.” An unfruitful discussion ensued, but he gave up and got “the manager” when I inquired our credit balance, which had been lost during either the acquisition or computer upgrade.

The manager appeared and with great boldness began demonstrating to his lackadaisical charge, proper problem resolution skills. He aptly summarized anew the critical information that we had pieced together from the unwitting clerk. He stated the company line and confirmed the price of seven dollars. However, he soon relented and eventually offered to partially accept our coupon, zero out the balance on our unverifiable account, and only charge us three dollars.

Sensing this was the best we could reasonably do, I accepted his offer and thanked him. He smiled broadly and shook my hand, no doubt assuring himself of a successfully resolved conflict and a customer retained. My wife and I, however, left with a far different perspective. The uncaring clerk had simply dug too big of a hole for his boss to climb out of; damage had been done and it was irreversible.

How to Win with Customer Service

It wasn’t until a movie rental chain opened a local outlet that we again rented a movie. We walked in and hesitantly approached the counter. Michelle smiled broadly and genuinely welcomed us. Upon learning that we were first-time customers, she carefully and patiently explained how everything worked, including the store layout, membership, prices, and the specials. Her pleasant and easy-going demeanor was refreshing and put us at ease.

As we began browsing, clerk after clerk would momentarily appear, helpfully restating a tidbit of information, providing direction, or offering assistance, then moving away as quickly and stealthy as they appeared. This was not like my usual retail experience when a clerk asks if I need help and I feel compelled to say “no” even though I do. At the movie store, the clerks’ interactions were both welcomed and beneficial.

When it came time to pay, Michelle, with her effervescent personality and evident enjoyment of her job, made the process of becoming a member both pleasant and effective, reiterating the value of membership and reinforcing the specials. She even did a successful up-sell—which seldom works with me—to pre-pay for several movies; this was quite a feat considering my prior experience with having a credit balance. But when one has a compelling offer that is presented with infectious enthusiasm, it is easy to be successful.

What amazed me most about Michelle, however, was that through all of this, she was training two employees! She had the ability to give them subtle cues and brief instructions in the midst of serving us, without leaving us feeling slighted or inconvenienced.

It is not surprising that I am looking forward to my next movie rental. I have even planned my selections for that snowy weekend that winter, when I take advantage of their “buy two, get three free” special! Good customer service is always an invitation to return.


To be successful, customer service needs to be more than just a slogan, more than mere lip service. It needs to be a strategy, one that is fully and successfully implemented with the customer’s best interest in mind.

Peter DeHaan is a commercial freelance writer who provides content marketing services and does ghostwriting.

They Did What?

Coping Effectively With Customers Who Behave Badly

By Kate Zabriskie

Kate ZabriskiePolite Notice: When it’s your turn, if you are talking on your cell phone, we will help the next customer.

If you make a mess on the kitchen counter, wipe it up. If you use a dish, clean it. If the dishwasher is full of clean dishes, empty it.

If you drink the last cup of coffee, make a new pot. Your mother doesn’t live here.

While somewhat funny, each of those notices is a cry for help from service staff exasperated by their customers’ impolite behavior.

If you pay attention, you can see breaches in etiquette everywhere you look. For example, anyone who has ever watched people at a hotel’s breakfast buffet load up their bags with enough calories to fuel a football team has witnessed a classic guest etiquette fail.

While normal customers are enjoying a bowl of cereal or a pancake, those “other” people are squirreling away yogurt, bagels, bananas, sausage, and anything else they can get their hands on.

No doubt, the hotel staff shake their heads in disbelief each and every morning they encounter such a scene, but short of a bag search at the buffet’s exit, is there anything that can be done to change customer behavior? Fortunately, yes.

As providers trying to deliver a great experience to both external and internal customers, businesses need to identify what they want and don’t want their customers to do, and pinpoint what people and processes they can put in place to realize the desired results.With an understanding of your customers’ experience and deliberate choices, you can influence how people behave. Click To Tweet

Step One—Audit: Experience your business from your customer’s vantage point. Whether you’re serving external or internal customers, you need to understand what happens to them before you can encourage or discourage behaviors.

Step Two—Encourage What You Do Want: Next, identify the actions you want your customers to take, and put people and processes in place to encourage those behaviors.

For example, if you want dry counters in your bathrooms, look at your sinks. Are they designed well, or do they spray water everywhere?

By providing hand dryers instead of paper towels, have you deprived customers of a way to clean up after themselves? If you provide towel dispensers, does your service staff pack them so tightly that customers will destroy several dozen paper towels before leaving behind a washbasin filled with sodden confetti and hands still damp? What about your employees? Do you train your staff to wipe down counter tops—even if “housekeeper” isn’t part of their official title? Do you model good behavior yourself?

Step Three—Invite Customers to Participate in the Process: Like anyone else, most customers are more willing to help you reach your service goals if you remind them of the mutual benefit of lending a hand. Let folks know what they can do to aid the common cause, and make it easy for them to do it. Consider that bathroom with the perpetually wet countertops. Is there a sign of some sort explaining the desired state and what customers should do if they encounter something different?

Something such as, “We make every effort to keep our sink counters dry and free of debris. If they or some other aspect of this restroom is in need of servicing, please tell any of our employees so we can make it right. Many thanks!” could make a big difference.

Such a notice makes clear your commitment to customer service, and it suggests an easy way for customers to take action and help you make good on that commitment. They don’t have to find a manager or call a phone number to report a problem but instead simply talk to any employee.

Step Four—Discourage What You Don’t Want: Beyond communicating your desired end (e.g. tidy restroom counters) and encouraging customers to participate in achieving it, you need to ensure that you and your staff are not working against yourselves by inadvertent enablement. Take, for example, the over-full paper towel dispenser. You want tidy restroom counters? Then have the person whose job it is to replenish paper towels service the dispensers more frequently and restock them with fewer towels. That isn’t rocket science, but it will require close management and frequent correction for a couple of weeks until that new practice becomes a matter of routine.

Step Five—Create Alternatives: Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, customers continue to behave in ways you don’t like. While it’s not always possible to creatively accommodate these people, often it is.

Consider the problem of abandoned shopping carts in a big box store’s parking lot. Those unmanned vehicles tie up spaces that would otherwise be available, they’re potentially dangerous, and they make the outside of the store look uncared for. To solve the problem, a business might first liberally place cart return areas throughout its lot and send an associate outside several times an hour to gather any strays. The company might also post signs asking people to bring carts to the store as they arrive for shopping.

If those actions don’t have the desired impact, the company might adopt a rental cart system where customers deposit a quarter to access a cart and get their quarter back upon the cart’s return. While some people will forgo the quarter for convenience, others will gladly police the lot to retrieve a free twenty-five cents.

Whatever the solution, it should never berate customers or accuse them. Instead, keep the message positive. Here’s an exampleDue to the popularity of many of our room items, housekeeping now sells alarm clocks, sheets, towels, lamps, and other merchandise found in your suite. If you wish to purchase something, please contact the front desk, or simply take the item home with you. We’ll gladly charge the credit card we have on file. Enjoy your stay, and let us know if we can be of service to you.”

The message is clear. The hotel does not intend for guests to own the items they’re using, but if they want to do so, they can certainly be accommodated.

Left up to chance, you get what you get from customers, but with an understanding of your customers’ experience and deliberate choices, you can influence how people behave.

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised. For more information, visit www.businesstrainingworks.com.

Why Your Customers Don’t Like You

And What to Do About It

By Kate Zabriskie

Kate ZabriskieIt’s Any Airport, USA at 2:00 am, and someone makes the announcement that the delayed 6:00 pm flight will finally begin boarding.

The catatonic crowd in the packed waiting area begins to form a line. They’re tired and relieved to be getting on their way.

In a super-perky voice, the gate agent then welcomes the titanium, topaz, and Teflon flyers and makes a big deal about them standing to the right of the rest of the crowd so that they may cross over a red bath mat before showing their boarding passes.

Once that collection of special status holders is taken care of, the agent starts loading passengers by boarding group and ceremoniously blocks off access to the all-important two-by-four-foot carpet square.

As she checks boarding passes, she half-heartedly asks people to stow their smaller items under the seat to leave room for larger bags in the overhead bins.

Onboard, the flight attendants don’t seem to care too much about bags either. Consequently, plenty of coats and small items fill the only storage area that can accommodate a suitcase.

It doesn’t take a mind reader to know what happens next. There’s no room left, and the remaining passengers have just had another forty minutes or so added to an already miserable excursion. Thanks airline! With a modicum of effort, everyone’s bag could have fit, but not tonight.

While great customers certainly deserve an organization’s appreciation, in this instance, the airline’s focus should have been on accommodating all customers’ carry-ons.

By wasting people’s time, the airline managed to make the skies and the ground anything but friendly. Oddly, that same company will spend millions on marketing in an attempt to build relationships with the customers.

For a company to have anything but a dysfunctional relationship with its customers, however, it must show them respect. Without it, the rest means nothing.

At the heart of disrespectful service are three errors: Taking actions that charge customers money they don’t expect to spend, costing customers time they don’t have to give, and failing to deliver on promises. Be transparent with your fees. Click To Tweet

Fatal Error One: You Cost Your Customers Money They Don’t Expect to Spend: If you’ve ever made a reservation at a hotel with a plan of arriving late, sleeping, and checking out first thing, you’re like many business travelers. If you’ve also had that in-and-out plan along with the experience of unexpectedly encountering a property with a hefty resort fee charged to all guests regardless of use, you know what it is like to part with money and not feel good about it—even if that money isn’t yours.

While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having a resort fee, what is wrong is leaving off the total when the reservation is booked. It’s dishonest. If the fee isn’t optional, it is part of the cost of the room and should be listed as such.

Be transparent with your fees. Customers have a right to know what things cost. When they don’t they don’t like you very much.

If you happen to be in a business where fees depend on what you encounter, be upfront in the beginning. Better still, offer a range. If your kitchen remodel is relatively straightforward, you’re looking at XYZ dollars. On the other hand, if we find water damage, asbestos, pipes we have to move, or structural problems, you can expect costs to go up substantially. Worst case, you’re looking at XYZ dollars + ABC dollars.

For organizations that primarily serve internal customers, currency may be something other than money. Even so, an implicit obligation to be transparent still exists. If people feel you’re taking advantage of them, you’ve failed.

Think about how you communicate money to your customers. Do you do all you can to make costs easy to understand? 

Fatal Error Two: You Cost Your Customers Time They Don’t Need to Spend: If you’ve ever been to a well-run theme park on a busy day, you’ve witnessed staff who are exceptional at safely moving huge numbers of people through the gates, on and off rides, and in and out of restaurants. Sure, the lines are long, but nobody is waiting one second longer than absolutely necessary.

If you’re working in a venue where long lines exist and guests can see obvious inefficiencies, watch out. The most tolerant bunch of people will transform into loud and impatient customers who channel annoyance into intense anger right before your eyes.

Nobody enjoys having their time wasted. Great service providers walk in their customers’ shoes. They see the customer experience through the customer’s eyes. They know that it’s important for staff to be responsive and do what they can to avoid wasting a customer’s time.

Look at your customers’ interactions with you. Are there places where inefficiencies exist that could be eliminated without sacrificing safety or something else your organization values? If so, show your customers some respect by becoming more efficient. If you are not sure where you could make improvements, ask your customers. They probably know. They’ve certainly had enough time to think about it while waiting for you to get your act together.

Fatal Error Three: You Fail to Deliver on Your Promises: Companies that fail to deliver on their promises erode customer trust. Don’t believe it? Think about toy commercials from your childhood. How about the one that showed a toy doing something amazing, and caused you to develop an obsession. You wanted it. You told everyone. It was on the top of your wish list. Then, finally someone finally bought it for you.

Weren’t you a little disappointed when it didn’t behave as advertised? It didn’t fly on its own or drive on its own. You felt crushed, and misled. Your customers experience those same emotions when you don’t come through, and guess what? They don’t like you very much when you fail to deliver.

Take an inventory of your promises. Where are you living up to your word, and where are you falling down? Start fixing those areas that are bound to cause disappointment or worse.

Guiding Principle: Don’t Make Customers Feel Devalued: Being opaque about costs, making customers wait, and failing to deliver on promises all indicate disrespect. Each of those actions shows people you don’t value them, and you don’t think they are worthy of receiving better treatment.

In other words, you just don’t like them enough to do better. Is it any wonder they don’t like you back?

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised. For more information, visit www.businesstrainingworks.com.



How to Succeed as a Small Business

Beat the Big Box Store and Succeed When You Make it SPECIAL For Customers

By Dr. Kevin Coughlin

Most people are aware that the real economic engine in the United States is small business. In fact, most would agree that small businesses are the foundation of the economy.

Very little provides more satisfaction than building and running a successful small business, but many small businesses make a fatal mistake at the outset: they don’t understand what their customers really want. As a small business owner, to put your best foot forward for success you must create a dialogue with your customer base, and ensure that your customers and clientele understand that you’re looking out for their wants and needs. Small businesses are the foundation of the economy. Click To Tweet

But building a customer-driven small business can be a bit different from competing with the big box store on the corner. How do you fight a company or business that almost has an unlimited supply of money and expertise? In all truth, it can be extremely difficult and takes a lot of effort; but it can be done and is being done all across the country. Your customers want to feel connected, they want to feel special, and they don’t want to be just a number or another transaction.

Your customers are all looking for products and services that they believe in, like, and trust. That is the winning combination in competition, and you and your team will be on the way to beating The Big Box by making the experience S.P.E.C.I.A.L. for your customers.

S – Superior Service: What is it, and how do you attain it? You must put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Experiment with each type of interaction that will occur between your company and the customer. A great starting point is to assess the quality of phone etiquette and your employees’ ability to address your customers’ questions. Ensure that you are receiving really good information that is timely and accurate. Really evaluate your website and email responses. Take an honest look at your products and services to make sure they are the best they can be.

P – Products: Evaluate your products and or services to see how they stand up against the competition. Take a hard look at the processes and procedures you can implement to make those products and or services most appealing and cost-effective to your customer base.

E – Education: This means training, training and more training with everyone from your sales people through your HR department; and perhaps most importantly, training for yourself. Many times as CEO or business owner you are the last to recognize that you may need and benefit from training more than anyone else. Success starts at the top, and without positive business training you and your company along with your customers will suffer.

C – Consistency: Constantly evaluate and re-evaluate your processes and procedures to make sure they are simple, repeatable, and trainable. Delivering consistent products and services are paramount to successful long-term success. Anyone can do something well once or twice, but when you can do it consistently you know your company is running well.

I – Ideal Customer Experience: You must look at and review to see if your customers are repeating purchases. Are they coming back to your company for additional products and services? If not, it’s imperative that you ascertain why.

A – Approachable: Do your employees and customers have access to you? If not, why? Determine how to create an environment that allows information to reach leadership so team members and customers know that their concerns will be addressed and not overlooked.

L – Lighthearted: When it stops being fun for you, your team, or your customers, you have started your company in a downward direction and action steps must be taken to change that culture. When your customers and team members have an enjoyable experience there is no better marketing plan available.

Most business wants to and dreams of becoming larger. The reasons are many, but the main reasons are that success is equated many times with more or bigger; however, more doesn’t always mean better; it simply means more.

If your desire is to make your company or business larger, be careful what you wish for. The vast majority of small business entrepreneurs like the risks, controls, and the building of their business many times more than the results. As has been stated many times, it is the journey more than the destination that brings real satisfaction.

For those who are wise enough to realize this, you must understand that all the things that can make the big box stores great are also the things that can be seen as negatives. This provides business owners an opportunity to compete and win over a customer base that eventually is overlooked by so many big box stores.

In the end, all business owners are unique but most entrepreneurs have common traits. They are competitive; they like the action and want to win. They are motivated, work hard, and have an undeniable desire to succeed and make sacrifices to accomplish their goals.

Whatever your goals and aspirations are, stick with them. There is plenty of room for the small, medium, and large companies. The market place needs all three groups. Find out what motivates you and what you really love about your business; pursue that passion with all your heart and you will receive much more than financial reward, but self-satisfaction that what you set out to do you accomplished.

Kevin Coughlin, DMD, MBA, MAGD is an accomplished dentist, author and speaker. With his unique and powerful message, Kevin provides small businesses with actionable solutions when considering strategic change, as well as keys to compete in an expansive market. For more information on bringing Kevin Coughlin in for your next event, please visit www.ascent-dental-solutions.com.


Understand the True Meaning Behind What Customers Tell Us

By Kate Zabriskie

Kate ZabriskieIn the world of sales and customer service, what people say and what they mean are not always the same thing. Unfortunately, many of us are listening impaired when it comes to getting to the heart of our customers’ messages:

“Maybe in six months.”

“I’m just looking.”

“I can get it on sale somewhere else.”

Sound familiar? Probably. Do you understand what people mean when they use these objections? On the surface, sure, but do you really get your customer’s or prospect’s intended meaning? If you don’t, you could be losing business.

The good news is there’s hope. With some practice and a little bit of discipline, you can tune up your service ears and grow your relationships.

Slowing down and focusing on what others need versus what you can provide is the first step. The second is to listen for a few key phrases and appropriately respond. The following are some of the most common red flags to which you should pay attention.

Maybe: When customers say “maybe,” they often mean “no,” such as in “Maybe we’ll place an order in six months.” Maybe may mean never. When you hear that word, keep asking questions. Don’t wait six months and then act surprised when no order is forthcoming. You have your customer or prospect’s attention now and a chance both to clear up some misconceptions and make a sale or at a minimum to understand why he or she is resistant.

Try one of the following statement in response to a “maybe”:

  • “I understand that you’re on the fence and ordering now isn’t in your plan. Between now and the time when you might order, how will you get ABC done?”
  • “When you place an order six months from now, tell me a little about how you will use XYZ product in your business.”
  • “What other solutions have you considered to accomplish ABC?”

Listen for a few key phrases and appropriately respond. Click To TweetAny of those follow-ups will give you some insight into the other person’s needs and decision process. Notice too that those questions aren’t salesy. Your follow-up—and you for that matter—should show a genuine interest in your customer and his or her concerns. The better you understand people and what motivates them, the more likely you’ll be able to help if there is a fit or to get a straightforward answer if there isn’t. The point is, when you hear “maybe,” investigate.

Fine: In the same lane of the vagueness “maybe” occupies, is another phrase that communicates very little. You’ve heard it before and probably used it yourself, and that’s the word “fine.”

For example, “How is everything?” results in an answer of “Fine.”

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. You can’t know unless you do a little more digging. People will often say “everything is fine” in lieu of “go away” or a more blunt “totally horrible, but I don’t feel like engaging in conversation about it.”

If you find yourself getting a lot of “everything’s fine,” make subsequent inquiries.

At the same time, try to determine if you’re setting yourself up to hear this “tell-nothing” response. By that, I mean “How is everything?” is a C-minus question to begin with. If you ask something specific, you’ll learn more.

For example, “Which part of the meal was your favorite?” is hard to answer with “fine.” Instead, you’ll most likely discover what your customers liked and what they didn’t.

Instead try “Which part of the meal did you like best?” which might garner a response of “I loved the salmon. The beans were a little spicy for me but still good.”

Isn’t that better? The takeaway to remember is, “fine” doesn’t mean “fabulous,” “fantastic,” or “flawless.” Respond to “fine” with a follow-up question.

Why: When customers ask “why,” they are usually expressing displeasure of some sort, as in “Why is only one register open?” “Why is this so expensive?” or “Why is this offered only in Nebraska?”

Too often, service and salespeople miss the real meaning behind these inquiries. “Why is only one register open?” means to open another register or two! Whereas “Why is this so expensive” translates to “this costs too much.” You get the idea.

Listen for “why,” and respond with something better than “I don’t know” or “you’ll have to ask my manager.” Although your customers aren’t jumping up and down with steam coming out of their ears or carrying gigantic flags with the word “why” emblazoned across them, somewhere lurking behind the question are people on their way to unhappy.

Imagine a busy traveler on a tight schedule in a city unfamiliar to him. He hasn’t seen his own bed in two weeks, few of his flights have followed their published schedules, and he’s missing another one of his kid’s ball games. It’s 11:30 at night and he’s just entered the door of his hotel where you work at the front desk. You exchange pleasantries, take his credit card, and give him the Wi-Fi code.

Just before you send him on his way, you explain that you have a wonderful breakfast waiting for him the next day. He then reacts to you with a “why” question: “Why is breakfast only served between 6:00 and 9:00 in the morning?”

At first you might be thinking, “Because that’s when people eat breakfast.” Fair enough, but the minute that three-letter word passes the traveler’s lips, your internal radar should pop up, and you brain should realize danger is in the air. The traveler’s “why” is a complaint and one that—if handled correctly—can offer you an opportunity to shine. Let’s look at a few possible responses.

“That’s a great question. We’ve found most of our guests prefer that window and…” one of the following:

  • “We do have to go bags here at the desk. If those times don’t work for you, just see the person back here, and he or she will gladly give you breakfast for the road.”
  • “We have a mini-store with a few breakfast items you can purchase if those hours don’t work out. There’s also always fresh coffee and fruit in the lobby.”
  • “If those times don’t work for you, I have a list of restaurants that serve breakfast outside those hours. I would be happy to give you a copy.”

Any of those is sure better than, “I don’t know. My manager decides that, and he isn’t here.”

Whether you’re uncovering the details behind “maybe” and “fine” or recognizing that “why” is often a complaint, better listening can help you build your relationships with people, improve your sales, and enhance the service experience. Take the time to slow down, ask questions, and get to the core of a customer’s message.

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised. For more information, visit www.businesstrainingworks.com.