A SMILE Makes All the Difference!
Parking is mostly a service-oriented industry. If asked, most people in our industry would say that our product is the parking space itself. I would argue that, at the most basic level, our “product” is actually the level of customer service, good or bad, provided by our employees.
I’ve written before about the importance of customer service in today’s competitive business environment, especially in the parking management industry. Quite often, the only differentiation between us and the competition is the level of customer service that we provide.
However, no matter how good our customer service skills are, we have to deal with angry, rude and just plain difficult customers on a daily basis. In the context of customer service, dealing with difficult customers is nothing more than realizing that we have a responsibility to understand and deal with the customer’s problems. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s only when people make it too complex that dealing with difficult customers turns into a nightmare.
Most people do not want to pay to park, and we make an easy target. When this happens, it’s easy to ask, “Why do the customers pick on me?” The bottom line is that the customer is really upset. And like it or not, you are the target of their pent-up frustration.
In fact, many organizations use the acronym “IPATTAP” to deal with difficult customers: Interrupt, Patronize, Argue, Threaten, Terminate and Apply Penalties. Even though this is a common tactic, it’s not the best approach to take.
A much better approach to dealing with difficult and angry customers is SMILE. Not only is a smile helpful when providing exceptional customer service, SMILE also is an anagram that can be used to remember a simple approach to dealing with difficult customers.
Smile and Listen to the Customer
First off, realize that the customer is not angry at you; he or she is irate at a situation. You just happen to be an available target. So don’t take it personal. Once you accept that fact, a smile is easier to produce and maintain.
A smile is contagious. When we smile, others around us feel better; we feel better as well. Research shows that when we smile, we treat others nicer, which causes our brains to release endorphins. These endorphins help to improve our mood, which helps us to listen to the customer.
We have to listen to the customer, not merely hear what they are saying. Note that there is a difference between “hearing” and “listening.” Hearing is the physical act of receiving sound through our ears. Listening is the emotional act to make a conscious effort to hear and understand what our customer actually means.
Empathy and sympathy are two different things. According to Wikipedia, sympathy is an emotional affinity in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other, and its synonym is pity. On the other hand, according to Wikipedia, empathy is commonly defined as one’s ability to recognize, perceive and directly, experientially feel the emotion of another.
So, in simple terms, sympathy merely says that you know how the customer feels. Empathy is often characterized as being able to “put yourself in the customer’s shoes.” Empathy conveys a much deeper sense of emotion, since it connotates that you can actually “feel” the customer’s pain.
Quite often, when we show true empathy, the customer realizes that we are not the enemy. This can help to diffuse the situation.
This is the action part of the plan. This is where you provide information on how you plan to help them. Clearly communicate what you are going to do to solve the problem. Do whatever is in your power to positively affect the customer’s situation.
If this is a situation that is out of your power to solve, provide the next steps to the customer.
Many times, the customer merely wants to know what they can do, and when we provide this information, the situation is diffused. If possible, provide options. The customer wants to feel they are controlling the situation. If we can provide options, the customer can choose a plan of action, making them feel in control.
Let Them Vent
Most of the time, the customer is merely angry at a situation. They are not angry at you, they are angry at the situation. By letting the customer vent, they usually get that anger out in the open, and the situation is diffused. Dealing with an angry customer is a lot like dealing with an inflated balloon. If we don’t handle it correctly – BOOM! When the angry customer vents, much of their tension is gone, and they are easier to deal with.
When we let the customer vent, it is important that we do not interrupt. Let them get it all out. That’s when we are able to open a line of communication with the customer, helping us to reach a resolution.
Escalate to Supervisor
We have to realize that we cannot make every angry customer happy. Sometimes, we have to escalate to our supervisor to get a resolution. The customer may be so angry at the situation that anyone associated with it cannot make them happy.
Additionally, our frontline personnel are not paid to take abuse. If a customer becomes abusive, the cashier must escalate to the supervisor. The supervisor must remove the angry customer from their “audience” and pull them to the side to resolve the situation.
We are not going to make everyone happy. We will have to deal with angry and difficult customers daily. If we remember the acronym SMILE, we will be able to diffuse the situation more often than not.
Mark Morris is Director of Organizational Development for Lanier Parking Solutions, based in Atlanta.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
S – Smile and listen to the customer
M – show eMpathy
I – provide Information
L – Let them vent
E – Escalate to your supervisor, if necessary