Do you remember Jean Luc Picard, Captain of the Starship Enterprise? Picard was famous for the pronouncements he would make to inspire his crew as they faced challenges in going ‘where no one has gone before’. Perhaps Picard’s most famous command was the one he used to will his crew to overcome seemingly impossible odds by simply saying – Make it so!
Great science fiction, right? Yet sometimes it might seem that your customers have been watching too much Star Trek. They too make demands that defy the laws of physics or ignore the realities of your service agreements. And somehow you are expected to – Make it so!
Service people constantly struggle with how to say no when customers make unreasonable or impossible demands. In effect, they need to be able to say “NO!” without it sounding like ‘I won’t help you’. Or, they need to be able to avoid saying “YES!” when they know that they are committing to something they shouldn’t.
Getting a customer (or anyone, for that matter) to agree to an alternative that you can and should say “Yes” to requires two skills:
- Initiating a collaborative discussion with the customer in which you can discuss alternatives, and
- Gaining acceptance to a solution that works for you and the customer.
Skill one – “Can we talk about this?”
When we initially hear a customer ask for something that’s clearly unreasonable, such as asking for service people to work during the weekend at no additional charge when their service agreement covers Monday through Friday, our initial thought might be, ‘Why would he ask for something he knows is not reasonable?’ All too often, the automatic response to the request is, “I can’t do that without a purchase order” (which the customer is certainly aware of when they made the request). This response, combined with skeptical body language, like a look of amazement that the customer would make such an unreasonable request, reinforces the message to the customer that this is not going to be an easy or helpful discussion.
We knew one service manager who had a habit of shaking his head and saying, “not possible” before the customer had even finished their request. The service manager actually was a helpful, customer-focused supplier. But his initial thinking and unhelpful words took over before he could formulate a more open response.
To be fair, customers do make unreasonable requests such as free service as an opening offer, and then plan on negotiating to get something close to their unreasonable request, perhaps some free service or a reduced rate. Or they hope that if the service person says no, they can shop-around their request to other people, like sales or a more senior manager at the supplier until they eventually get a yes.
Avoiding that initial, automatic, unhelpful-sounding response requires reorienting your thinking from defensive, i.e. ‘why do they think I should give them free service?’ to curious, i.e. ‘what’s going on with this customer that’s driving their request?’ Changing your thinking and self-talk will be reflected in your body language and the words you use to respond.
The same service manager who automatically shook his head and responded, “not possible”, changed his attitude to curious and created a new habit of responding with, “interesting” while adopting a sincere look instead of shaking his head. The response from the customer was immediate, non-defensive and more open. Clearly the customer got the manager’s accurate message – ‘I want to help’ – instead of ‘no!’
Skill two – “What if we tried this?”
Once the customer and service person have overcome initial defensiveness they can engage in an open, collaborative discussion, starting with understanding what’s truly behind the request and why this is difficult for the service supplier to agree to. This leads to the second skill, gaining acceptance to an alternative solution that works for both sides.
This skill is essentially a round of ‘what if’ back and forth brainstorming until both sides come to a solution that they agree will solve the customer’s problem and is possible for the supplier to deliver with a reasonable amount of extra effort, resources, etc. This requires both sides to continue to be open-minded as they talk through alternatives. It also requires creative thinking, since it often happens that a balanced outcome involves a solution that neither side had thought of before.
Some things to watch out for
Applying these skills and getting to a balanced outcome may sound straightforward, even easy. However, there are some situations and some customers where service people struggle to get these skills to work. Here are a few of the most common challenges.
- Getting the customer to engage in the discussion in the first place. There are some customers who are simply not interested in talking about an alternative solution to their demand. Some may even consider the request to talk about alternatives to be disrespectful (see the story below). For these ‘just do it!’ types, it’s necessary to point out the benefit to them to at least explore alternative solutions. The fact is that free service or parts might not adequately solve the customer’s problem. Once the real problem is revealed in the deeper discussion, a better solution can be found that is also balanced for both sides.
- Not being able to come up with a solution that works for both sides. In some cases, the service supplier might not have enough knowledge and experience to be aware of an alternative that fits the situation. Likewise, the customer might be missing important background that could open the discussion up to additional ideas. When this happens, stop the discussion and agree to reach out to others on both sides who could fill these knowledge gaps.
- One final pitfall is for the service supplier to accidentally commit to something that they shouldn’t. For example, in the heat of the brainstorming the supplier says something like, “I’m confident I can get my boss to agree to provide those resources.” Whoops, the customer just heard that providing the extra resources is a done deal. Instead, be careful to only make commitments that you can deliver personally without obligating your boss or anyone else.
Engaging the customer in a collaborative discussion even when it violates cultural norms
In Asia, particularly in countries like Japan, saying no to any request from a customer is counter-cultural. It is considered disrespectful, and as a result field service engineers frequently find themselves burdened with unreasonable or impossible tasks simply because they lack an effective way to engage the customer in a discussion of alternatives.
One such engineer found a truly creative approach to engage even the most demanding customers without showing disrespect. This engineer began collecting all of the requests he received from his demanding customer that did not make sense to do immediately. He then sorted these requests into categories: 1) those that seemed reasonable for the supplier to perform, but unfortunately were not possible because of some constraint, 2) those that were in fact possible for the supplier to execute, but not at all reasonable for the customer to expect, and 3) requests that were neither reasonable nor possible regardless of the desires of the supplier.
After a few months, the field service engineer had collected enough data to take to the customer and, in a very respectful way, propose that it would be worth reviewing the engineer’s data to identify how they could be more productive in the way they handled requests. For example, the engineer pointed out that a full 20% of the customer requests were not at all possible to agree to, and as a result both he and the customer had been averaging as much as one day per week discussing how to deliver the customer’s impossible requests!
This approach led to a much more productive discussion about the reasons behind the customer’s impossible requests, which in turn reduced the number of customer requests that were simply not possible. The customer and the engineer used the same approach to discuss requests that were not viewed as reasonable and ended up reducing these requests as well.
Best of all, the customer and the field service engineer now use this approach routinely as a framework for analyzing requests and solutions from the start. Communications have improved tremendously, and a lot of time is being saved for both.
To learn more about other Total Customer Focus™ skills, like REASONABLE POSSIBLE, sign up for our Insights blog series.
And if you are interested in the Total Customer Focus™ skills assessment for your organization, contact Paul Hesselschwerdt, Partner at Global Partners Training.