You are sitting in the drive thru at 7:30am. You’re already running late for work, but would rather be late with coffee, right? The guy ahead of you in line appears to be ordering for 30 people. Finally, you pull up to the window and the barista hands over your order.
But alas… They gave you a gluten-free muffin instead of blueberry, and somehow your hot coffee ended up being an iced latte. With rage swelling inside you like a volcano ready to blow, you rush into work. Time to lodge a complaint. Let’s go speak to a manager.
I know what you are going through. I have been the customer whose order was so wrong it was funny. Unfortunately, I have also been that barista who screwed up your drink. I added oat milk when it should have been almond. I forgot to include that muffin with your mobile order. (I’m sorry if that was you!)
Most often, I have been the business owner/manager on whose shoulders the responsibility for complaints ultimately falls. Customer service is a tricky business—especially during a pandemic—but building stellar customer service into your company can turn complaints into productive solutions.
Complaints Can Be Your Ally
Stellar customer service starts with the understanding that complaints are critical to the success of your business. Any company that employs humans is going to make mistakes. Those mistakes are going to affect customers, and you need to be ready and willing to hear about them. Unless you are a sole proprietor, you are not going to know everything happening in your company. Customer complaints are sometimes the only way to find hidden issues. Be open to receiving them—and be ready to act on resolutions to keep the same issues from coming back.
Make it insanely easy for your customers to contact you. If it is easier to drop a one-star review on Google than it is to inform you of an issue, you can bet that is where your customer is headed first. Having several channels for potential feedback is key. Taking customer questions or complaints from multiple places like a dedicated phone extension, an email address, and a contact form on your website are good places to start. Take it a step further—set up support channels through direct messages on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram—and meet your customers where they are.
Once people can easily contact you, be ready to provide meaningful support. Setup an FAQ page or knowledge base covering potential questions and their solutions. If you have a large-enough operation, consider investing in a support ticketing system to keep communications organized. Provide yourself or your support personnel with all the data and tools they will need to help your customers. Regardless of your company size, empower each member of your support team to make decisions, offering refunds or discounts to satisfy your customers. Finally, ensure a steady feedback loop of information. When a complaint comes in, make sure it is not only addressed, but that your company learns from it. Investigate the issue, involve the staff affected, and work to resolve it.
Building out great customer support systems and processes will ensure you are not only able to resolve and learn from customer complaints—you will also reduce the risk of “Karens” coming in and ruining your day.
The Customer Is Not Always Right
Customer service is never perfect, though. No matter how good your system is, you will still deal with truly difficult customers. My final piece of advice on customer service is an unpopular one: The customer is not always right.
You need only to work in a food service or retail environment for a short time to see this. I have watched employees get screamed at over a missing straw. I have been cursed at for five minutes over a new lid—and let’s not even talk about our enforcement of COVID mask policies. Sometimes saying “the customer is always right” gives a small number of people license to be truly cruel. Do not let them!
Stand by yourself, and especially by your team. Nothing will crush morale faster than allowing one bad customer to demean or abuse your staff. Sometimes the best customer service is not giving those customers a freebie; it is showing them the door. You can always correct issues with you or your staff later. Standing in solidarity with your team will do more in the long term than taking the side of one abusive customer.
Providing stellar customer service can truly be a joy, but complaints are a natural part of any business. Having the right mindset and tools to deal with them will foster a continual process of improvement. Your best customers will be the ones who care enough to point out the flaws and mistakes in your business. If you can respond quickly with solutions, you will show them that even though they received the wrong muffin today, it will not happen again tomorrow. PM
Weston Berchtold is co-owner of Eli’s Coffee Shop, with shops in Morton, Tremont and Metamora. For more information, visit eliscoffee.com.