Keep Your Cool and Your Customer

March 31, 2010
Written by Mike Lascelle
As a garden centre owner, you’ve probably had the misfortune of dealing with a screaming, irate customer at some point in your managerial career.

While it may be hard to believe at the moment you are dealing with this angry shopper, customer complaints can actually help you to improve your garden centre. In fact, I like to think of those upset customers as free business consultants. Instead of hiring someone to discern your deficiencies and help you improve your bottom line, here is someone willing to tell you what’s wrong, free of charge. It could be much worse – disgruntled customers who choose to go home quietly are not likely to shop at your garden centre again and they will probably share their unpleasant experience with friends and family. The act of complaining literally gives you a second chance to resolve their concerns. What you choose to do with the information they share and how you treat these people determines business success.

Common complaints around the garden centre include lack-lustre customer service, high prices, poor quality products and, my pet peeve, long checkout lineups. Having adequate staff to handle inquiries and keep the checkout moving at a reasonable pace is crucial. It is very shortsighted to save a little money by cutting staff if your customers are left in long lines with no one to help them.

They will simply go to another garden centre looking for that customer service and when they find it, they will gladly spend their money. It is also important to set consistent company policy at staff meetings (with all staff present) in regards to plant or product return, complaints or safety concerns (for example, slippery floors) so that each employee knows what to do or whom to refer to when these incidents arise.

Price complaints are common in garden retail. By way of example, our hellebores range in price from $8.99 (for common species in smaller pots) right up to $34.99 for some of the newer double cultivars, and I will often hear complaints about the cost of the latter. I resolve this by showing the customer the full price range and explaining that some plants are more expensive due to patents and a higher wholesale cost. This explanation has never failed me, because once the customer realizes that the retail price is an honest reflection of my wholesale cost, the price concerns just seem to evaporate. That said, if you are receiving consistent complaints about high pricing, it might be prudent to compare yourself with the competition, and adjust your price or wholesale supplier accordingly.

Lastly, I would like to leave you with my three-step approach to dealing with customer complaints.

The rules of engagement
Each complaint needs to be taken seriously and every disgruntled customer should be treated with the utmost respect. Start by listening and do not interrupt until the entire complaint has been conveyed. Your next step is to ask the customer what they would like you to do. In most circumstances, their request will be quite reasonable (for example, “I would like another plant.”) and well within the parameters of company policy, so that the problem can be quickly resolved to both partys’ satisfaction.

Negotiating a truce
In those rare occasions when the customer’s request goes beyond the norm, I suggest compromise. One example was a client returning a houseplant purchased a month past, complaining that it was infested with mealy bug. I confirmed the infestation and immediately checked our in-store stock, only to find them pest free – a point that the customer acknowledged. I assured her that we do our best to keep our stock clean and that we had no other complaints regarding these plants. Then I politely asked if there was a possibility of cross-contamination from her other houseplants to which she replied that she was sure that none of her other plants had mealy bug. At this point, neither party seemed at fault, so I could break the impasse by either reiterating that our stock was not infested or by giving the customer a new plant – I chose to do both. My solution was to offer to dispose of the offending houseplant and to help the customer out by giving her a replacement at 50 per cent off. We actually shared the resolution costs and she left with a smile.

Cutting your losses
There are rare occasions when customer demands are unreasonable or their demeanour so unacceptable (for example, racial slurs or swearing at staff) that you may be unable to resolve the conflict. In my 12 years as a nursery manager, this has only occurred three or four times and it is important to maintain your composure and remain courteous during these incidents. You should politely inform the customer that you are unable to resolve their complaint due to company policy and if they continue to protest loudly, simply ask them to leave rather than prolonging the argument in front of other customers.

When it comes to dealing with customer complaints, one of the best things you can do, above all, is listen. For the most part, the customer just wants to be heard and understood, two things you and your staff must be ready to do. Don’t place blame; remain calm and work with the customer to find a solution. If you’ve done your job correctly, you’ll be left with a satisfied customer who will be ready to shop with you again and again.

Quick tips to take away:
  1. Don’t argue back – You know the customer may not always be right, but that won’t help your case. Stay positive and professional.
  2. Listen more than you speak – The customer wants to be heard so listen to get their side of the story before you respond.
  3. Don’t play the blame game – Even if someone else in the company made the mistake, don’t pinpoint that employee. Take responsibility as a team.
  4. Ask them what they want – Before you offer a resolution, ask the customer what you can do to make them feel better.
  5. Take charge – If a particular employee is working to make a customer happy, leave the case with that employee so the unhappy shopper isn’t passed around. It’s frustrating for the customer to have to explain the situation over and over.
  6. Follow up – Once the problem as been resolved and sufficient time has passed, send the customer a thank- you card for being patient or check in with a friendly phone call.

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