How to Be a Better Customer - Because CRM is a Two-Way Street

Kindra Cooper

customer relationship management

Whether or not you’ve worked in retail, you’ve likely heard some horror story about a cantankerous customer demanding a discount on a three-dollar item as a reward for showing up, or a fussy deli patron who insists on supervising the making of their sandwich to ensure the perfect ratio of balsamic to ranch.

Like any relationship, great customer service is a two-way street, and as customers we should also consider how our actions affect our fellow patrons - ask anyone who’s tried to sleep on a flight while seated near parents who don’t bother to discipline their disruptive toddler. Being a considerate customer begets better service - besides, you can’t claim to be a good Samaritan if you make exceptions for retail workers.

1. Always be appreciative and polite

Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that bargain hunters are less likely to view retail workers as fully human. Only by dehumanizing the person on the other end of the phone or the other side of the counter can we feel justified in being rude to them.

And under certain conditions, such as shopping at a big-box store offering deep discounts and sales promotions or flying with a budget airline, research shows that we subconsciously perceive employees as inferior - likely a vestige of classism, where we involuntarily associate the employees of low-cost brands as low-class and therefore less deserving of our respect.

“When customers encounter low-price signals, they may adopt a price-conscious mentality, that is, a singular focus on getting the cheapest deal,” the study’s abstract reads.

The researchers had subjects review various airlines, from high-end carriers like Lufthansa to budget brands like Ryanair, where subjects used fewer humanizing words to describe Ryanair employees. Consequently, when the employee makes a blunder, the customer is less sympathetic. As a rule of thumb, know you can never go wrong with the golden adage, “Treat others as you want to be treated.”

Good customers treat waitstaff, cashiers and other service providers as people, not servants. Replace unwanted merchandise where you found it so that the clerk who stocks shelves isn’t burdened with tracking down misplaced items ten minutes before closing time.

And if you’re unsatisfied with your food at a restaurant, don’t demolish the entire plate before alerting the waiter; it casts you as the tightwad who’s trying to wrangle a free meal, and an item removed from your bill is sometimes extracted from the waiter’s paycheck. If you tip off the waiter early on, however, the kitchen can make you a replacement dish without it costing the waiter.

What’s more, businesses are ardent scorekeepers of customer lifetime value, and a belligerent customer who returns merchandise excessively or harasses employees eventually gets their karmic recompense. In fact, airline contact centers assess which calls to prioritize based on the number of times a customer has called to complain in the last 90 days, on top of other criteria. Retailers also keep tabs on how frequently you return merchandise, which disrupts inventory and cash flow while incurring costs for restocking. Exploitation of liberal return policies can result in being banned from future returns.

2. Be willing to identify yourself

We get it, authentication is annoying. It’s even more grating when you’re calling to block a lost credit card and the CS rep asks you to reel off your personal details while each passing second gives a thief the opportunity to rack up a massive bill at the nearest Macy’s. But biometric authentication is still an incipient technology, and banks and insurance companies have just begun to tinker with it.

To smooth the process for both you and the agent, have your information ready to go before you dial. If you’re calling with an account or order inquiry, have your ID numbers ready, and give your details the way the service provider asks for them. Don’t resist authentication measures - the employee is just doing their job.

3. Communicate your problem clearly

Lead with the facts. If a business makes an egregious error causing you a dire inconvenience, say an important shipment arriving late that makes you miss a deadline, do mention this, but don’t embellish. Adding layers to your story won’t speed the missing item’s arrival, and the person you’re venting to likely has nothing to do with the company’s supply chain. However, it is their job to treat your complaint with respect and find you a timely solution. If you’re submitting an email support ticket, make sure to include as many details as possible so the agent isn’t forced to go back and forth with you, which saves you time.

“To be a good customer,” freelance journalist Page Grossman writes in a blog on Zendesk, “consider who might be affected when you complain and who is truly to blame when you’re unsatisfied.” And in the event you do receive bad news, don’t shoot the messenger.

Of course, the onus is on the business to reassure you that they will fix the problem by compensating you in some way, but once they do, it behooves you to reign in some of your rage. Also, allow the company an opportunity to fix the problem. Sure, complaining feels good, but there are times when we complain for complaining’s sake, at which point we’re less receptive to an actual solution.

And finally, don’t rehash a previous error. When I managed digital marketing for an entrepreneurship center at a university, a speaker we booked warned us not to cancel the event because another university had canceled on him years before. We felt immediately distrusted even though we had nothing to do with this previous incident, and the relationship was strained from the outset.

4. Respect the rules

If a coupon expired, don’t insist the store honor it. Businesses make financial forecasts based on existing offers and promotions, and they have expiration dates for a reason. It’s fine to ask if you can use the coupon anyway, but don’t be hostile if the store says no. Some businesses like budget airlines have very stringent refund policies, if they offer them at all, and even cash-flush tech companies like Apple offer stricter return policies (14 days with a restocking fee of 10 percent) than industry standards, but it doesn’t stop customers from buying from them. As long as the business makes its policy clear, the onus is on you to determine whether or not you want to assume that risk when you make the purchase.

5. Understand that businesses are run by humans, who aren’t perfect

Over the normal course of doing business, sometimes you-know-what hits the fan. Maybe a clerk mislabels an item or accidentally overcharges you. Or the agent you normally speak to falls ill and you’re transferred to a different agent (who should still know the necessary details of your case). One grocery store worker shared on Reddit that a customer grew irritated when a cashier had to switch with him mid-shift because she was feeling ill.

The switch takes two minutes and the worker reassures the customer, “Just give me a minute and I’ll be with you,” but she complains about the wait. The new cashier says, "I'm very sorry about that, ma'am but my coworker was not feeling well, and I was asked to relieve her so she could go home."

Unsatisfied with that explanation, the customer retorts: “Well, why didn’t she stay home if she was sick?” Only 23 percent of low-income earners in America get paid sick leave, according to Popular Science, many of whom can’t afford the luxury of an unpaid day off. Snags happen, and no matter whose fault it is, sometimes the best thing you can do is have some understanding for the humans like yourself who are just trying to do their jobs.