Cultivating Customers – Dealing with Difficult Customers While Keeping Others Loyal

Difficult Customers

You open your store and your dreams lie before you. The customers line up at the door and the register starts ringing. Your shop becomes your home away from home. Then, your shop becomes a home away from home for others. Mixed in with the enjoyable customers lie the unpleasant. Learning how to navigate through the problem customers to maintain their loyalty while minimizing their damage can often be a tricky proposition. As a coffee shop owner in Charlotte, N.C., I have had my share of experiences with customers who can make, and those who can sometimes break, your business. Let’s take a deeper look at these different types of customers and how to handle them appropriately and keep customers coming back.

Direct Marketing Salesman
Let’s first take a look at the “direct marketing salesman.” This person has probably just come from a series of seminars on how to promote his own “network” business and he or she has identified your shop as the next source for targets. The person has perfected their casual walk up to the register whenever a new prospect enters the door. Within moments, the conversation turns from the bakery special to an unmistakably worded solicitation upon your customer. Remember that this solicitor could be anyone, even a friend, and it’s important to have a consistent stance on solicitation, no matter who it is.

The recommended course of action is diplomacy. Your direct marketing customer has purchased something from your shop and therefore has every right to be there. Your unsuspecting customer has also purchased something and, while his interest might be piqued, it’s very likely he would rather enjoy some time alone. Although it may sound above and beyond your job description, it is your responsibility to strive for a positive experience for all your guests. The best course of action is to kindly speak to the “problem customer” and let him know that there is no solicitation at your shop. Your shop should be a welcoming space for everyone. Do not let one person scare off any other potentially loyal customers. Another nonintrusive option would be to hang a bulletin board in your shop and allow postings (at your discretion), which customers could read at will. When you notice someone trying to solicit customers, you can politely remind him to post his or her information on the board.

Bored Older Gentleman
Next, let’s discuss the “bored older gentleman.” This person may seem harmless at first, but beneath the charm and gentle exterior can be a rather bothersome client. When the bored gentleman grabs his drink or gelato and sidles up to yet another customer to retell the story that you and the rest of the shop has now heard three times, it is your job to run interference. Gently ask, “Excuse me, this customer has just told me that she has come to read her book and would prefer not to be interrupted. Do you mind coming over here and telling me what you think of this new flavor of gelato?” Involve the problem customer with something you’re doing. As a business owner, you have to accept a certain amount of aggravation in the course of your day, but your customers don’t. By keeping this problem behavior under control, you are keeping other customers from, quite literally, walking out the door.

Difficult CustomersWiFi Guy Gone Awry
Another customer worth mentioning is the “WiFi guy gone awry.” This customer has found your shop by doing some online research of free WiFi hotspots in his neighborhood, or perhaps by checking the signal strength on the laptop he keeps on the front seat of his car while in your parking lot. Once your location has been verified and your WiFi signal deemed strong enough to conduct business, he moves in. Before ordering, he unpacks his briefcase, pulls out his laptop, sorts through his business cards and snaps his Bluetooth headset into place. Before long, he has spread his wares all over three prime tables in your front window and he is conducting business loudly over his cell phone. The up side: He will probably buy something during his “work day.” The down side: He is taking up your best tables and most likely irritating other customers.

The solution is to put up signs. Before your store becomes someone else’s business center, place clear signs around indicating that customers need to use their cell phones outside, and to please only use one table per customer. This may not always work, but at least by posting a sign, another customer can use the policy for support when asking for one of the tables. During slower times, you can send one of your staff members over to the table to try and make a sale. If this continues to be a problem and your regular customers are finding it more and more difficult to get a seat, try only offering your WiFi during certain hours and turning it off at more social times, for example during events.

#1 Loyal Customer
The “#1 loyal customer” is a love/frustrate relationship. While this customer typically buys a lot from the store and comes in often, he or she believes that it has entitled him or her to take on the role of assistant manager of the store, dictating what discounts should be received, what your staff should be doing and instructing other customers on their purchases. You know the comments: “I buy over $50 worth of gelato every week and therefore should get a whole month free,” or when they address other customers: “Don’t get the raspberry scone, get the pumpkin loaf. Trust me, I have been coming here for years and they aren’t known for the scones.”

Not an easy situation as you don’t want to lose this customer, but some interference is definitely needed. Address the customer directly for their feedback and thoughts – this allows them to feel they have your ear and you are dedicated to bettering their experience by listening and appreciating their feedback. For example, if they express a dissatisfaction for product with another customer, step in and say, “John Doe, you never expressed you weren’t a scone guy. What can we do to interest you in the scones? I have to keep my top customers happy.”

The difficult customers will always stand out, but remember that most of your customers are enjoyable and it’s important to nurture them. According to the National Restaurant Association, repeat customers represent the majority of sales for a full-service restaurant.1 It is therefore imperative to offer your customers loyalty programs that will continue to motivate them to walk through your door day after day. For almost no cost, you can print loyalty cards where each punch brings your customer closer to a free gelato. Your wholesale cost for the free item is negligible, but the benefits of a loyal customer who will continue to support and endorse your shop to others are priceless.

A small business owner has challenges to overcome every day. From sourcing supplies to marketing promotions, there is no limit to the tasks that need to be accomplished. Advocating for your customers and intervening when necessary will make your customers feel more relaxed and comfortable in your space. Maintaining this positive atmosphere will keep everyone, challenging and pleasant customers alike, loyal and excited to come back day after day.

1 Succeeding in a Tough Economy. (2008) Sysco San Francisco.
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