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biz ladies: customer relations

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Today’s Biz Ladies post comes from Mackenzi Farquer of SITE, the eclectic design store and studio that brings inspired home furnishings to the neighborhood and supports local artists in Queens. Mackenzi has previously contributed to the Biz Ladies series with her post on 7 great retail tips. As a retail owner herself, Mackenzi has had plenty of experience working with various clientele, and today she shares some of her tricks for dealing with the occasional customer relations issue. Thank you, Mackenzi, for this helpful post! — Stephanie

CLICK HERE for the full post after the jump!

I wish I could say that running a shop was nothing but glitter and magic. It’s not. Most days, I have the best job in the world, but every now and then, the storm clouds roll in bringing with them some rather nasty customers. Here are some examples of threats to your business, both brick-and-mortar and online, and a few best practices to help you defend your shop.

Fraud. Trust your gut. It’s really that simple. If something seems wrong, it probably is. Set up solid return/exchange policies, have good procedures in place and understand that sometimes no matter how hard you try, things might not go as planned. Here are some examples of in-store and online practices that I follow:

  • We don’t accept bills larger than $50. Ever. Sadly, there are some good fakes out there, and as a small business, I can’t afford the risk of receiving counterfeit money. I’ve seen fake $100 bills that pass both the watermark and the counterfeit pen test. Ultimately, my experience is that customers will use a credit or debit card if they don’t have anything smaller than a $100 bill on them.
  • Overseas internet or call-in orders for amounts over $200, or sales that don’t have matching SHIP TO and BILL TO fields are a red flag. Call your credit-card processor, and they can help you weed out potentially fraudulent charges and avoid pesky charge-backs.
  • Maintain good records and keep copies of orders, shipments and any credit-card verification records in the event that a transaction is disputed. I keep all of these compiled by order number.
  • Watch out for multiple repeat orders or purchases. As much as retailers like repeat business, it’s best to be wary of multiple large orders or purchases made back-to-back by the same person. These types of orders are often indicators of a stolen credit card. Orders involving purchases of a dozen of the same item over and over again should be a red flag.

Returns and exchanges. No one in retail loves returns or exchanges. They hurt your bottom line and make efficient ordering and inventory difficult. A customer might return to your store dissatisfied, angry, upset, confused and perhaps even all of the above! As shop owners, we should always treat customers who are returning merchandise with respect and patience. Smile while you’re helping them, and above all, be clear about your return policies so that the customer knows that they are getting the highest level of service. The aim of any shop is to cultivate loyal, lifelong customers. Keep them happy at every interaction, whether they’re buying or not.

Shoplifting. It’s a grim reality all retailers have to face. Even if you think you’re in a crime-free neighborhood or that your customers are all amazing, it will happen to you. Start theft prevention early, before customers walk through the door. Make sure you know your merchandise, that items are orderly and that your pricing labels are specific and clearly marked. One form of shoplifting is swapping price tags from a higher-priced item to a lower one; make sure your price tags are specific to their respective items. A good price label might say “Kobo Soy Candle — Red Grass, $36” not just “Candle, $36.”

Once your shop is open for business, another deterrent to crooks is to always, always, always greet each new customer by looking them in the eye and smiling. In addition to making your customers happy, letting a potential shoplifter know that you’ve taken the time to look him or her clearly in the face is often enough to deter potential theft. Once you’ve greeted them, don’t get distracted or “unavailable” (e.g., don’t check your email or make a phone call and forget you have customers), and check back in with them every ten minutes or so. Keep an eye out for tell-tale signs, like large coats or bags, unusual body language or customers who lurk in corners or other “hidden” spaces. And remember, profiling doesn’t help. There’s no one “type” of shoplifter. Thieves can be old, young, male or female.

It should go without saying that shop owners should provide excellent service to their staff, as well. Make sure they are happy and they’ll give you their best. Hire the best, don’t be afraid to terminate “just adequate” employees and stay alert. It’s not fun to think about, but shoplifters are responsible for less theft each year than retail employees. One industry publication recently noted that 43% off all shrikage (the fancy term for loss or theft) was due to employees, while only 33% was due to in-store shoplifting. Institute good labor practices, and hire the best people you can afford.

Dissatisfied customers. I have learned this: Don’t take customer dissatisfaction personally. No, really. Don’t take it personally. Arguing, being judgmental or acting hurt will never win over a dissatisfied customer. Last holiday season, a customer called my shop to order an item that had been featured in a press piece. Sadly, we were sold out for the season by the time he called — I politely told him I could take an order for early January delivery. He flew into a fit of rage, screaming and yelling and repeatedly called me a fraud. For days and a sleepless night or two, I worried and worried about this customer. I talked to friends about the situation. I felt anxious. Three days later, the same man called back (caller ID is a blessing!), and as if nothing had happened, asked about the same items. This time, when I told him the items would not be shipped until January, he placed the order. Had I lost my cool during our first interaction, I might have lost the order he made on his second call. Moreover, I wasted days and nights worrying about nothing. We didn’t miss the sale, even though that particular customer likely treats all retailers like crap.

Another story: Right before Valentine’s Day last year, I sold a pair of locally handmade silver-hoop earrings online. The order was placed on February 12th. I immediately emailed the customer to let him know that the order might not arrive on time and received no reply. I made sure the earrings were shipped the very next day, gift-wrapped with a pretty pink bow and a hand-written thank you note. Two weeks later, the angry emails started. “Why would you sell sh*t like this?!” “Who do you think you are?!” “How do I get my money back from this fraud?” and so on. When I explained that he could return the items (directing him to our very clear online returns policy on our website), he quickly wrote back saying he wanted a refund WITHOUT a return and threatened to write zero- or one-star reviews anywhere my shop appeared on the internet: Google, Yelp!, our Facebook page, etc. This is the e-commerce version of holding me hostage, and I felt I had very few options. My sense of “justice” and “right vs. wrong” kicked in, and I just wanted him to follow the same rules as all of my other wonderful customers. Losing money felt bad, and getting a permanent bad review felt worse. I explained to him that I personally select, wrap and ship each product, and that it’s never my intention to disappoint. Could an exchange work? In the end, the beautiful handmade earrings were exchanged for a doormat. Fitting, I thought. Bending my own rules just slightly helped to avoid what could have been a permanent stain on my shop’s record. Sometimes you have to be flexible and willing to negotiate in order to get the best possible outcome.

What about those nasty Yelp! reviews? Nothing gives me as much anxiety as seeing an email alerting me that my shop, SITE, has a new review. (Not seeing emails in your inbox about your Yelp! activity? Run, don’t walk, to www.biz.yelp.com to sign up for the business owner’s account. It’s free and full of great data and tools you’ll want to use.) Yelp! reviewers are some of the toughest, often basing their reviews of your solidly built business on their own personal desires and whims.

I have a personal policy of responding to every reviewer who gives my shop a five-star review, or anything lower than four stars. For those who compliment what we’ve got goin’ on, I say a simple thank you and let them know that it means the world to me as a small business owner to get great feedback. It’s like a modern-day thank-you card. For those who are less than complimentary, I take the time to read their concerns, digest and wait. I mean it, don’t just hit reply and fire off a response; it won’t be good. Wait and think, then write. Yelp! allows reviewers to change or update their reviews; a thoughtfully worded reply might be all it takes to get that customer back into your shop. While you certainly can’t please all of the people all of the time, you can at least try. Here are some best practices when it comes to replying to less-than-positive customer reviews:

  • Thank the customer for their business and for the review.
  • Don’t ask for “favors.”
  • Don’t offer to send a gift (these can be perceived as bribes).
  • Don’t sound negative, mad, cranky, judgmental or hostile.
  • Don’t comment on any minor complaints in the review.
  • Do offer to meet with the reviewer to listen to them further or ask for ways that they think you might be able to improve. Reviewers want to feel important.
  • Do let the reviewer know if you’ll be taking steps to fix the issue at hand, if their review mentions something specific.

“The Bargain Squad.” This is my nickname for cranky customers who are never satisfied with my prices. If you have a shop, you have ‘em too. I’ve had customers storm out when I won’t give a “quantity discount” on two items. People have made a fuss over my prices while other customers are in the store. No matter how much time and consideration I put into my price points, someone is always unhappy. When met with a Bargain Squad Member, I always make sure to

  • Let them know the specifics of our discount policy, if there is one.
  • Reiterate that SITE is a independently run business with tight profit margins, run by one hard-working owner. We’re certainly not a huge corporation, and we price our items as fairly as we can afford.
  • Ask if there was a specific amount they were looking to spend, and suggest alternatives.

At the end of the day, no matter what kind of mood you’re in, how you feel or what kind of sales day you’re having, always be kind to and patient with your customers. Smile. Take the time to help them, even when the attention required seems overwhelming or “not worth it.” And remember: the customer is always right.

In addition, stay informed about retail, network with others and always strive to learn more. It will keep your outlook positive and make you better poised to deal with the nasty stuff when it happens. Here are some e-mail lists and blogs I go to when I need a dose of retailer therapy:

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8 Comments

laura @ prix-prix

Great article! I love your steps for dealing with bargain shoppers. Also, SITE is a super awesome store full of awesome things!!

Kristen D

Great post! Thank you! I’ve been debating delving into yelp, I’ve heard it can be a little dicey on the company’s side, but you’ve had good experiences?

Jess McEwen @ periwinkleflowers

A great article- thanks!
Something that has been a great help to us at the flower shop is knowing exactly what our profit margins are ( surprising how many small biz owners don’t know this) so when those bargain shoppers and wheeler dealers complain that I should give them a second bouquet for free for example, I feel confident and without guilt in saying I can’t, because I know that that would be the same as handing them a wad of cash instead.

Also, learned the hard way from a very hard to deal with customer that everyone has their own sh*t going on in life and sometimes it really isn’t anything to do with you as a retailer- they may be undergoing treatment for cancer or getting a rough divorce and just need an outlet for their feelings.

thanks for the great advice.

jenni o

this is really helpful advice for sticky situations. I wish this was forwarded to every business owner. Not only are there crappy customers out there, but there are also crappy store owners, who don’t seem to realize a smile or a slight bend in their policies might make me a customer for life!

Mary M

Thank you for your insightful article. I run my own design business and work in retail. These are great tips whether its consulting contract or customer.

Anne-Claire Regan

Thank you so much for sharing your stories and experiences! It is really helpful to read great artcile like these as one can be a little isolated working from home and not having a real store front!
It’s always useful to hear from other experienced business women!

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