Customer Service Mistakes and Managing Pushy Coworkers (Podcast) | Ep. #032

Elizabeth Larkin and Gene Marks

What’s the biggest customer service mistake you can make as a small business owner? Gene and some of our listeners disagree! We also talk about what to do about a pushy administrative assistant in your small office on this week’s episode of the Small Biz Ahead podcast.

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Elizabeth: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Small Biz Ahead podcast. Today we’re going to talk about customers. There’s no doubt about it customers can be jerks, but is letting them know you think that they might be a jerk before they’ve actually done anything jerky ever a good idea, Gene?

Gene: Sure it sounds like you’ve met some of my customers, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: We’re going to be right back with question number one, which is all about how to treat customers when they might potentially become a jerk after a word from our sponsor. Gene, we actually don’t have a question. We have some responses to an article that you wrote.

Gene: All favorable, everybody happy with what I wrote?

Elizabeth: You wrote an article about the biggest customer service mistake a small business owner can make. We posted the article on Facebook. It got 1100 likes, 441 comments, and 254 shares as of today.

Gene: What was the mistake? I’m trying to think …

Elizabeth: The mistake were small business owners who put those little signs up in their store or their office or their retail shop saying complaints file to the back or … What were some of the other ones?

Gene: I figured it was some of the antsy signs like ask any question you want, just don’t ask it of us. Things like that.

Elizabeth: It’s basically scolding a customer saying don’t ask us any stupid questions.

Gene: Like ha, ha, ha. I walk into … I was thinking what motivated me is I see these around, but there’s a deli near me. This deli, by the way, is a popular delicatessen near where I live and all that, but you go in there all around in their walls are these anti-customer signs. The customer is always right on Mars, like those kinds of things. I walk around and I look at these signs and I’m like you know … You know what it’s like Elizabeth? It’s like when people make a joke about something that they don’t think it’s funny, it’s really obvious to me. It’s clear that you’re not, because you’re even talking about, you don’t think this is funny so don’t even try and joke about it. It’s kind of the same thing when I see these customer signs. To me, it says a lot about a business and it annoys me.

Elizabeth: When I see them, I think wow they must have terrible customers here. Then I think am I being terrible.

Gene: Yeah, like listen do I need to feel this way when I walk into any place, like I’m a bad guy because …

Elizabeth: I’m just buying a broom.

Gene: Yeah, no need to have some derogatory sign up there about a customer. I have a lot of people think it’s funny and fair enough. I don’t think it’s funny. I would never put one of those signs up in my business. By the way, it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it all the time. We have plenty of clients and customers like yeah I want to wring their necks. I just would never hang a sign like that.

Elizabeth: We got a lot of responses. I’m going to read one of them.

Gene: By the way, they’re all wrong, anyone that disagrees with me.

QUESTION #1: Customer Service Mistakes

Elizabeth: This is from Steve in Temecula. He writes, “I just read your article about sarcastic signs in small businesses and why they should be removed. Here’s my question. How do you keep all your blood and organs inside your body with that incredibly thin skin of yours?” Then John in Terre Haute, Indiana, he works in a medical practice. I have to say before I read John’s response, I’m assuming in a medical practice you are dealing with a lot very angry people most of the time and they’re probably not angry at your staff. They’re probably just angry with the whole situation, like they’re sick, they have a problem, but anyways. Here’s John’s comments.

“When are you going to do a similar article to your biggest customer service mistake you can make, but this time taking the customer to task. Every business owner has the experience of having customers or in my case patients that come in on any given day who are really jerks right off the starting blocks. You’re correct in your article. Business owners should treat customers with courtesy and respect. No such signs as you described should be displayed. Almost certainly, they’re meant as a joke, but they are tasteless and inappropriate. It is equally important for customers to keep in mind that business owners and their employees, including medical practitioners and their assistants, are not there to be whipping boys and whipping girls for customers and patients. Showing us attitude is just as inappropriate as those signs. Being crossed with us is unacceptable. Treating our staff rudely is unacceptable. Putting up with such behavior is not a cost of doing business.” I totally agree with his comment.

Gene: Completely, I mean look, the best example, and I should have written this as well, is that when you look at the American companies are known for iconic customer service., the people that are in the hotel industry like Marriott hotels, ones that just live and breathe, they’re all about customer service. Would you ever see one of those signs hanging up in their … Why do you think that is? These are big corporations and they get it about their customers. If they are all about customer service, they would never be hanging a sign like that. When I see a dipsy-doodle small business owner, a deli owner, who’s hanging some stupid sign making fun of their customers, I think there’s somebody who will never really be a big successful business owner or is really customer oriented because they just don’t get it.

Like the reader had said before, customers don’t have the right to come in and be abusive or behave badly. We hear those stories online all the time in fast food restaurants, people just trying to do their jobs getting yelled at. There’s responsibility on both sides. I do think it starts with the business owner and the business owner is …

Elizabeth: You’ve got to set a tone.

Gene: You do. You’ve got to set a tone.

Elizabeth: What about if a customer came in and was being abusive, let’s say you owned Gene’s Deli. I think we’ve used this example before.

Gene: Not a Gene’s Deli but we’ve had abusive customers.

Elizabeth: Do you fire them as a customer? I know you raise their rates definitely.

Gene: Yeah, we do raise … It’s funny because I have this situation through a lot. It happens mainly because my company sells technology. Just this week, I had a situation where I got an email from a client who didn’t want to pay for any more services because she was unhappy with the software product that we sold to them. Then also, she made a few snide comments in the email. She’s a small business woman.

Elizabeth: Directed at one of your employees?

Gene: Yeah, direct at us. Like I hope I don’t get charged for your response to this email, that kind of thing. In my opinion, this is another topic I plan to write about. In my business, particularly Elizabeth, I go by the 80/20 rule. If 80% of my customers are satisfied at any given time, I’m doing great. When you’re dealing with small businesses and you’re dealing with a lot of consumers, you are just not going to please everyone. I’ve gotten to the age now and I’ve had enough people complain and whatever, plenty of people being happy of course. I’ve had enough of those situations like when a woman writes me an email with a couple of snide comments, my reaction was she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get us. I know we’re good people. We’re trying out best to provide a good service. We also expect to be paid for the service as well. I don’t think it’s unfair … She doesn’t want to pay. This is America. She can do what she wants to do. She doesn’t have to pay.

I just emailed her back and said sorry to hear that. We’re here to help you if you ever need that help and let me know. What’s going to happen is two weeks from now she’s going to come back for help. Then I’m going to want to charge her for that help and she’s going to call me everything from the worst words, how dare I … My response is, you talk about growing a thick skin, is usually I say listen for what we have to do, I have to pay my people, I have bills to pay as well and you would be doing the same thing with your customers. It doesn’t mean that we charge people if they’re not happy with the work, but in this case, you have people that you run into that just don’t get it.

Elizabeth: What about someone being rude to one of your employees? I’m assuming you’d have to address that because your most important people are your employees.

Gene: I am always, because that’s also happened. I have had, again because we implement technology and we’re based in the Philadelphia area. I have sent people from my company to some places that were disasters. I had one woman who …

Elizabeth: Wait, why is that typical of Philly?

Gene: I know, really. We have to talk about Hartford, right? I remember there was woman working for me who I sent her to some industrial park and I remember meeting the guys when I sold them the product. They weren’t the nicest guys. Not dangerous, don’t get me wrong. Just kind of jerky. She went out there and she called me on the way home after visiting this client saying these guys, they did this, they were rude to her, whatever. My response was don’t go back to them again. 100% you back up your employees. There is no exception to the rule. I always take the side of my employees even if we lose a customer because of it. People make mistakes but if a customer’s going to be rude or mistreat people, totally unacceptable to me.

Elizabeth: I’ve actually seen in the case of a restaurant, a restaurant owner kick customers out because they were being rude to his staff and another time I saw them being rude to other customers. I think there was maybe a little bit of alcohol involved one of those times.

Gene: This is another topic for another day maybe, but I’ve gotten into fights with customers, yelling match with clients. Not fist fights because I’m only 5’6″, weigh like 98 pounds, but I’ve gotten into arguments with customers when they’re not listening and they’re not doing something that they need to do. I think it’s important. Raised voices, I’ve had, I remember there was one conference call, an employee was on the line. He was like, oh my God I can’t believe you’re saying that to these guys. I’m not saying I handle these situations well all the time, but maybe it’s my age because you do get to a certain point of your life and experience where you’re like if you’re being hired to provide a service for somebody, you know what you’re doing and they don’t. That’s why they hired you to provide this service. Sometimes, customers can be more geniuses in their own minds than they should be.

I’ve just always believed if you feel passionate about what you’re doing and if you really feel like you’re trying to do the right thing for this customer I have had no problem in the past yelling and using profanity at a customer saying stop and listen to what I am saying to you right now. Don’t do this. Even at the risk of losing a customer sometimes if you’re in a service business, sometimes it’s worth losing it. Maybe it’s another topic for another day. Anyway, being abusive and rude, particularly for customers there’s no reason to do that. Getting back to the original question, I hate it when people hang these signs, taking swipes at their customers. I just hate it.

Elizabeth: It’s the worst. I think you can agree that there are sometimes difficult customers and accept that fact, but it’s also not right to be chastising all of your customers who might be perfectly lovely people.

Gene: It’s not funny. Maybe some people find it funny. I just don’t find it funny. We all have different opinions as to what’s funny.

Elizabeth: Okay, we will be back with question number two about an administrative assistant that’s running a mock.

QUESTION #2: Delicate Situations

Okay, we’re back and we have a question from Samantha from New Brunswick, New Jersey, north easterner. She writes, “I really like my administrative assistant, but he acts like he owns the place. I need to have a conversation with him about how he treats other employees. What’s the best way to remind him that these folks work for me, not him, and that I make the rules around here. I’m also worried that he might think someone tattled on him and might try to get even with them. How do I handle this delicate situation?” This is a great question.

Gene: It is. It’s actually a good question. I like that.

Elizabeth: Because you have people that work for you that have been there for a long time, so they know more than maybe some of the newer employees.

Gene: More than me in many cases.

Elizabeth: More than you, Cory.

Gene: Yeah, Cory is a great example.

Elizabeth: What would you do if Cory all of a sudden started bossing everyone around behind your back?

Gene: I always evaluate employees and customers [inaudible 00:14:47] with the long term money I’m going to make off of these people, both employees and customers. For example, using the example of Cory, if he was like this, which he certainly is not like this, thank goodness.

Elizabeth: Sorry Cory, I just threw your name in there.

Gene: The first thing I would do is look at this employee and say is this worth the trouble, first of all, getting counseling or managing. Is this employee that good that I can’t replace this employee and have an easier time of it and still make the kind of money I’m making now or even more. If the answer is no, this employee is really good and without this person, my business would suffer or it would take a while to recuperate, then I would have to work with the person, which basically means I would be having a lot of one on one conversations with this person. I have to have a relationship. It’s kind of like your kids. My wife was tutoring a kid recently and the mother of the kid was complaining because the kid wasn’t behaving all the time, the father was working a lot of hours, he wasn’t really around. There was this disconnect of having a relationship. You needed the father to be around more and [inaudible 00:15:51] to the kid.

It’s the same thing with an employee if it’s a valuable enough employee, then that person is worth your time to spend more time with that employee. Counselling, talking, building a relationship so that you can say, this behavior, I love you. These are three things that you’re doing great and all this, but you really got to scale this thing back. Only doing that I say if it’s worth it. If this person is just a pain in the you know what and you’re like, this is ridiculous, I can find another person to do the same job, I say find another person to do the job.

Elizabeth: I think we also need to explore the roles of people like administrative assistants and office managers. Those are the people that know where the bodies are buried, so to speak. I think they might see themselves as being lower on the totem pole because they’re not revenue-generating employees, but they’re vital to a small business. They really keep everything running. A lot of people couldn’t do their job without them.

Gene: That’s right.

Elizabeth: I’m thinking an administrative assistant like this that thinks he owns the place, that is bossing everyone around, maybe they need something … Maybe it’s time for them to move on to a new job in your organization.

Gene: You bring up another good topic as well. I was meeting about this with a client last week actually about we were going over some of their employees. They have about 100 employees at their company, but one person is just not doing really well in their job and they’re like we’re thinking we should replace them. The bait was if an employee is not good in this role, but they’re good, it’s hard to find good people, dependable people, trustworthy people, smart people. You should think to yourself before I let this person go, is there something else this person can be doing here that I can be making more money from. That administrative assistant, if it’s not working out in that role, I don’t know if that person’s got that kind of a personality. Maybe that person can be in sales for you or in some type of other role within the company.

Elizabeth: Technical role, maybe they just need to learn a new skill and they can take over a job from someone else that someone doesn’t want to do.

Gene: It’s kind of like what I said earlier. Before I spend this person off, I’d be like is there any way I could be making more money off this person. Is this person a value to my company? If not, then okay. If you can find some role, I wouldn’t necessarily get rid of the person right away.

Elizabeth: Yeah, definitely. All right. We’re going to be right back with Gene’s word of brilliance.


Elizabeth: Okay and we’re back with Gene’s word of brilliance.

Gene: Elizabeth, here is the word of brilliance that I have for you. The word of brilliance is money.

Elizabeth: Really?

Gene: When I mean money is this. It’s actually a few words but I will tell you this. I had written about this recently and I have very strong feelings about this. Whenever I talk to a customer, a business owner, a prospect, and they talk about money and if they say to me money is no object. You ever been in that situation where you’re going to sell something, people are like money is no object. These are four words, four of the stupidest words any business owner or customer can say. Whenever I hear somebody say that money is no object, I always have a red flag that’s raised. My antenna always goes up because when you’re in business, it’s always about the money.

I remember in the Sopranos, Carmine with the mob boss one of the New York families. He was having this argument with Johnny Sack and Johnny Sack was saying something again about the money. Carmine was like yeah again about the money. It’s all about the money. It’s always about the money. When you’re selling to a business owner, when you’re selling to a customer, even if you are that customer, never say to somebody money is no object. It’s a goofy, silly thing to say.

Elizabeth: It just makes you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Gene: Yeah because money is always the object. If you want to you can be saying I’ve got a decent budget but I’ve got to make sure that it’s going to be worth it. I want to make sure I’m going to get value for what I paid for.

Elizabeth: What would you say is an alternative? Take money off the table. Let’s think of the best possible solution and then we’ll work back from there.

Gene: That’s exactly what I want to do, but more importantly, a lot of people talk about say let’s build up value in this product and then we’ll talk about what the price is going to be. That’s like an old time sales … Whenever I’m selling to somebody, anybody, I always talk about money first. I always do because in the end we’re all concerned with how much something is going to cost. When I speak to a perspective customer I always ask right up front what’s your budget. A lot of times people they don’t really know or maybe they don’t want to. I was like well tell you what, if this product that we sell costs around this and this product that we sell costs around that,e should we focus more on this product or that.

That at least gives you an idea of where it is because you don’t want to waste your time talking to somebody who doesn’t have a budget. Trust me, there are many people that I have wasted time with that have told me at the beginning of a conversation, money is no object. Then we get into it and I’m like okay well that’s going to cost $3.99. They’re like oh my god, that’s twice my budget. Do you have anything that’s more affordable? People ask about when do you talk about money in a conversation. I believe you always talk about it upfront because I think it’s that important.

Elizabeth: I think also for the customer because I have been talking … Actually, I’m looking to get my kitchen redone right now. Talking to contractors, they’ll be going on and on about all this great stuff they can do. The whole time I’m not paying 100% attention because I’m thinking in the back of my head how much is this going to cost me.

Gene: It’s funny because when you’re talking to that contractor and let’s put yourself in the head of that contractor. He was a small business owner I’m sure. Did you guys talk about budget beforehand? Did you at least bring it up?

Elizabeth: Yeah, no.

Gene: That’s the wrong approach because you’re probably … You don’t want to embarrass yourself as a customer, like sure money is no, yeah I’m sure I can afford … You don’t want to say. It’s always best at the very beginning to get the money done upfront. That contractor should be saying to you Elizabeth …

Elizabeth: What’s your budget?

Gene: Yeah, what are you looking to spend? Just a range, whatever. Whenever you hear money is no object, be afraid. Be very afraid. For God’s sake, don’t say that to anybody because it makes you look silly. It really does.

Elizabeth: Yeah, you end up with a $6000 Espresso maker in my kitchen or something that I don’t need.

Gene: You end up looking a little foolish because you’re like actually money I guess is an object because that’s a little too expensive for me.

Elizabeth: I think that’s a good place to start. Even if you could just say what’s your budget range or this will get you this. You can always upsell people. If you say okay well in your budget we can get you this. For a little more money, we can get you … You can always work on upselling people.

Gene: Correct.

Elizabeth: Alright. Thanks for joining us for another episode of the Small Biz Ahead podcast. We’ll be back next week.

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