The following is from a  2000 business advice column in the The Hindu newspaper:

Dear Hilka,

Whoever said the customer was always right never worked with my customers. Half the time I just feel like screaming at them to behave or go away, but I realise this is inappropriate. However, how can I get them to be more polite so that I stop dreading going into work every day?



Dear Needs,

IT was Mahatma Gandhi who in a speech in South Africa in 1890 said: "A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider of our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us the opportunity to do so."

Yet, don't you wish that certain customers would just spare us the favour of this opportunity? Unfortunately, there is little to be done to correct someone else's bad behaviour unless our products or services are in such demand that we can risk alienating them. A recent article in a New York newspaper described the owner of shoe repair shop whose work was so superior that the rich and famous line up to have their very expensive shoes repaired by him. He orders these society ladies and superstars to stand in line and wait their turn, to stop making so much noise with their chatter, and generally to be polite. Any individual who does not behave, risks not being served. Few of us have the luxury of being so superior to our competition that we can afford to alienate customers. If, unlike this shoe repair owner, your products or services are not the best by far, you can only work on your own attitude.

Think of extending enlightened hospitality to your customers. Greet them when they enter, offer to help them and then be sure to do so. Some customers are cantankerous or rude by nature, and there is little you can do except remind yourself that they have the problem, not you. Keep your emotional responses in check and try being extra nice; it may be a novel experience for them. It is important not to respond in a hostile or defensive manner. You are only the sounding board for whatever it is that has made them so disagreeable. Listen without interruption to make the person feel valued. Courtesy and attentiveness help make the customer happy, though not necessarily more polite. If your efforts all seem to be in vain, a mood booster for you might be to remember that they will soon be on their way out the door again. If nothing else, you'll feel virtuous for your efforts.

If, however, the customer has a legitimate complaint, listening attentively is crucial to help you get to the heart of the problem. Then, emphathise with the customer. Acknowledge that you, too, would be upset if something like that happened to you. Once the customer feels understood, it is much easier to progress to a resolution. Don't forget, though, to clarify and reiterate the points of the complaint as you perceived it and ask the customer for confirmation to make sure you really did understand one another correctly.

Ask the customer how the problem can best be resolved. Too often, we assume we know what it will take to make the customer happy and offer them the world when an apology would have been sufficient. And, when we go to extremes to try to make a customer happy, we are often left feeling abused by and resentful to that customer.

Once you are clear on the required course of action that needs to be taken, stay with the customer if at all possible until the problem is resolved. If you have to go to another department or seek someone else to help you, ask the customer to accompany you so the person does not feel abandoned. If that is not possible, explain where you are going and how long it will take. If the customer is on the telephone, offer to call back promptly rather than leaving the person on hold interminably.

In conversation with the customer, be wary of spouting "company policy" or telling them that they are the only one with this problem. Avoid, too, a litany of excuses. Blaming your supplier will cast doubt on all your merchandise. Blaming the problem on being so busy makes them feel as though they don't matter. Focus instead on a simple apology and on the resolution.

Should a customer become verbally abusive, extricate yourself politely and firmly. Avoid getting huffy. Comments like, "I do not have to tolerate such rude vulgarity," will only inflame the person further. The best solution with abusive or difficult customers is to turn them over to your supervisor or manager as quickly as possible. Never engage in a verbal sparring match, even when you have an overwhelming urge to do so. It is a losing battle for you.

One of the great lessons for you in this is to make sure that you treat other people well when you're the customer. All too often, people who serve others become the rudest and most demanding when they are the customer...but then, some are also the nicest because they remember what it feels like to have to tolerate intolerable behaviour.



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