Listening for a Customer’s True Need is the Key to Customer Relief

Just because you can’t do exactly what a customer asks, doesn’t mean you can’t do something

I run two very active sign manufacturing facilities in the Pacific Northwest. Both facilities drive an incredible amount of product out the door each and every day. We pride ourselves on the quality of our work and being able to hit deadlines; that’s why we have been so successful over the last 35 years. However, every week we have at least one customer calling and begging us to manufacture a job for them that they need IMMEDIATLY, obviously neglecting to give the proper time frame for ordering. These customers are usually quite desperate and demanding by the time they get put through to me.

“I know the job completion date wasn’t for three weeks but I need it installed by Friday!”
“Please can’t you just push this sign through…my Grand Opening is this weekend!”
“I have this great project for you guys but I need it installed by the end of the month!”

I really feel bad when speaking to them about the situation they have put themselves in, but rather than just telling them “no” like most sign shops would do, or taking their business with no intention of meeting that expectation, I like to spend a few minutes talking with them about why this is such an emergency. Usually, after a little empathy regarding their situation, I find out that Friday is the day that the building needs to be turned over for occupancy… Not that the job actually has to be completed.

“So what you need are signs on the door for the occupancy inspection that will be done on Friday?”
“Yes! Without the signs the whole project won’t be turned over and it will cost me a fortune!”

“Well, obviously I can’t produce a large signage package like that overnight, but I certainly see why you are so stressed out. Why don’t I make some temporary signs for all the code sign locations so you can get your occupancy, and then we can take the time we need to manufacture quality signs for your facility.”

“Can you do that?”
“We do it all the time.”

I made the temporary signs. Problem solved. They didn’t get what they thought they wanted… but they did get what they really needed. “Just because there’s nothing you can do, doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.”

customer-support-office1. Don’t be so fast with a “no.”

The key to making an alternative suggestion work for a customer is to avoid immediately sharing what is not available. Take a little time since the customer has no idea how long it actually takes to process his/her request. Use that time to focus on the customer’s actual interests, not just his/her stated request. Try to determine what’s really going on, and how flexible he/she might be.

2. Don’t try to explain your way out of a high-effort situation.

People often waste too much of a customer’s time and mental energy explaining why the customer can’t have what he/she wants. While doing so might seem logical, typically it comes across to the customer as defensive or combative: “All you’re doing is justifying why your company can’t give me what I want. How does that help me?”

3. Don’t take the customer’s request quite so literally.

In many cases, the service a customer requests and his/her actual need may be very different. When you understand the full context a different need may emerge.

In my case the “Just because there’s nothing you can do doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do” approach succeeded on multiple levels: One, I got a great new customer and project, and the contractor got a sign company that they knew could help them out in stressful situations.

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