You probably can put together a lot of three-word phrases you would rather not hear from your customers, like, "Lower your prices," or "I want a refund" (I fudged a little on that one). But those aren't the three words that concern me because they can be easily dealt with.
I'm concerned about three words that you not only don't want to hear, they should never even cross your customers minds if you are properly interacting with them. The three words are, "That's not fair!"
It's Part of Our Culture
This concept of being fair is part of our culture and has been drilled into us since we were kids. We've been taught to form lines and take turns and "everyone gets a chance" and one-person-one-vote and to flip a coin when there is a dispute because "that's only fair."
Because it is so deeply ingrained, we get really angry when someone does something to us we consider unfair. (Think about the last time someone cut in front of you in line.)
Fairness is always in the back of your customers' minds, and they use it to evaluate your business. For example, they evaluate whether your prices are "fair" given what others are charging and the quality of your goods and service.
And your customer service is being judged as customers evaluate whether they are being treated fairly in their interactions with your business. Is the time they are waiting for service fair given the number of other customers and employees present? (i.e., "Why aren't more checkout lines open given all the employees I see?") Is the employee's behavior fair in terms of time spent in the interaction and comments made? (i.e., "Why don't they seem interested in me as a customer given all I'm spending?") Are they being treated fairly when they have a question or a complaint? And what about the solution offered? (i.e., "You ask if I found everything at checkout but don't help me when my answer is 'no'.")
You don't want your customers to be thinking, "That's not fair!" This strong negative emotion can lead to loss of customers. Strong negative emotion can produce strong negative promotion as customers tells others about their "unfair treatment."
Equal and Fair Aren't the Same
You might think that fair treatment means equal treatment. And that would be incorrect. Why? Because your customers are not just comparing their treatment to that of your other customers. They are comparing how they are treated by your business to their treatment by other similar businesses. They are also comparing your treatment of them to the inner concept of fairness they have developed over time.
For example, I used to go to a doctor who routinely had me waiting 45 minutes past my appointment time. Friends who went to the same doctor told me they had the same experience. So we were all being treated equally. But was this treatment fair? Not as far as I was concerned. So I found a different doctor who cut my wait time to ten minutes.
How to Increase Your Fairness Quotient
Sometimes due to circumstances, we can't give our customers the amount of attention they want, serve them as quickly as we should or solve their problems or handle their complaints the way that they would prefer. While customers may not be totally happy about this, they are more likely to be accepting if they at least feel they were treated fairly. Here's how to accomplish this:
First, reevaluate your behavior, policies and operation. Is what you are doing really fair to your customers, or does it just reflect inflexibility, bad policy or poor business operation? If you believe what you are doing is fair or can't be avoided given the situation, apply one or more of the following:
- Explain why - Tell customers why you were delayed, why you can't do what they want, etc. The explanation needs to be more than, "That's the way it is," or "That's our policy." A proper explanation increases understanding and perception of fairness. But make sure it does not sound like you are giving a lecture in the process.
- Let the customer explain - If the customer has a complaint or concern, give the customer a fair hearing. Not doing so or cutting the customer off will make the entire process appear unfair.
- Express empathy - The perception of fairness will be greater if customers believe you understand how they feel.
- Apologize - When customers are inconvenienced or otherwise made upset with your actions, an apology is only fair.
- Emphasize the positive - Emphasizing what you can do rather than what you can't do will increase customer perception of fairness.
- Invoke fairness as your goal - Explain how what you are doing is the fairest action for everyone given the circumstances.
- Make an exception - if the situation involves a simple misunderstanding or confusion, or the cause of the issue is unclear, an exception may be appropriate to maintain good relations and perception of fairness.
- Thank them for understanding - This acknowledges their help and increases their perception that you value them.
It's Only Fair
Mistakes are made, interactions are not always as good as we would like and customer complaints will happen. In these make-or-break situations, customers may not always be completely happy with the way we respond. But as long as they walk away believing, "At least they were fair," they are likely to give your business another chance.
© 2016, Dr. Dennis Rosen. All rights reserved. Reprints welcomed so long as article and by-line are kept intact and all links made live.