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Handling Problematic Customers

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A long time ago, I lost one of my favorite clients by simply neglecting to ensure his call had been placed on hold before I launched myself into a tirade. It was a classic example of our family’s signature personality trait unleashed—the Schneider Temper. Fists pounded on the desk, veins swelled, and words were shouted that would force a longshoreman to cover his ears.

I was so fixated on solving the customer’s problem I forgot my first responsibility was to the problem’s owner: the customer. I was so lost in the safe and familiar world of solving impossible puzzles, I failed to communicate what we had already done and what we had yet to do to the person paying the bill.

It was late and I was already frustrated when the call came in because I didn’t have an answer for him, frustrated because I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t understand just how maddening what you and I do every day can be. So, I started screaming, “Would someone please tell Ken I’m a mechanic, not a (insert expletive here) magician!” Everything went downhill from there.

It was a signature event, so deeply etched into my brain it can never be erased, something so painful it cries out to be forgotten. That is, until something else, something so familiar, occurs that it forces a return. That’s when the holographic brain drags you right back into the middle of an experience you would give anything to escape.

Instead, every vibrant memory, every scent and every sound is re-created, perfect in every way, bringing with it a pain so exquisite, so sharp, it is magnificent in its intensity.

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This time, it started with a gift certificate—a charitable donation, a marketing opportunity to introduce products and services to a new audience. The call came in, an appointment was scheduled and a slot held open for the next morning: a 30-point courtesy inspection, oil change and filter at no charge.

The woman entered the office and confronted my manager with all the softness and subtlety of Hurricane Sandy. She was here for her “free” oil change and wanted the job finished before we had a chance to start it.

“What do you mean it’s going to take an hour? I need it done now,” she said. “If I had known it was going to take that long, I never would have accepted the gift certificate in the first place. What’s wrong with you people?”

The portion of the brain that is supposed to censor the internal dialogue you and I hear playing inside our heads when something like this happens, the part of our psyche that is supposed to gain control before we start talking started revving up.

“Why does it have to take so long?”

Because we pull the wheels, rotate the tires, measure the drums, rotors and friction material, check the fluid levels, lights, belts, hoses and just about everything else you can check to ensure you don’t get stuck somewhere, and that takes time.

It takes time to document it and it takes time to estimate the services necessary to keep you, your family and most of all, me, safe when you are on the road.

“You wouldn’t have accepted the gift certificate?”

Perhaps you would prefer to pay for a “bad” service rather than receive a quality service for free.

What happened next was classic. The woman pulled out her cell phone and went into a tirade about how screwed up we were, how we couldn’t do something as simple as an oil change in less than an hour. She finally took her rant outside the office. It was a sight to behold!

When I was done scanning another vehicle I was working on, I walked into the shop, put the scan tool away and headed for the office. My manager was coming out of the stock room and we met just behind our side of the service counter. He was still upset, visibly shaken from the assault. He had offered to reschedule, offered to take her home or to the mall, or to the spaceship that had brought her to us. The only thing he couldn’t do was offer to give her money back because, well, she hadn’t spent any money.

“Can you imagine anyone acting that way? You should have heard the way she was talking and what she was saying about how screwed up we are,” my manager said. “Did you hear her language? I wonder if she kisses her children with that mouth!”

That’s when we both heard a voice coming from the other side of the counter, the corner we couldn’t see. “You know you should make sure the people you’re talking about aren’t around to hear what you’re saying about them before you start talking,” the woman said.

All of a sudden it was 20 years ago with the phone ringing off the hook and my blood boiling all over again.

Take a deep breath. Count to 10, maybe a hundred. Then, think about what you’re about to say before you say it.

“I apologize. You’re right. We shouldn’t say anything behind a person’s back we aren’t prepared to say to their face,” I said. “So, as long as you’re here, let’s not let this moment go to waste. Just a few minutes ago, you did exactly what you accused us of doing. Why? Because you don’t understand what really needs to be done and consequently your expectations are unrealistic and can’t be met.

“You may not want the inspection you’re complaining about, but you need it. Your vehicle is falling apart. The tires are on the wear bars, you have one new shock absorber in the back and one that is hemorrhaging hydraulic fluid. Someone cracked the aluminum crankcase at the oil drain plug boss and re-engineered the drain plug to try to stop it from leaking. And, we haven’t even gotten to the black widows that are crawling all over your vehicle.

“We gave you the opportunity to reschedule. We offered you a ride to just about anywhere you needed to go. All you had to say was that we were no damned good and that you’d never be back. Well, your vehicle is ready so let me be the first to hasten you on your way.”

There is no telling what you will find in the corners and crevices of your mind, no way to know what you’ll find in the corners and crevices of your office either, I guess. There is no way of knowing if the level of common sense you possess will be sufficient to help navigate the more turbulent waters of customer relations management either.

The bottom line is that common sense isn’t all that common anyway. Mine failed me all those years ago and I lost a relationship I would have done almost anything to keep.

This time, my common sense told me to walk this woman to her truck, put her inside, close the door, turn around, and never look back.

And this time I listened. 


Mitch Schneider is a fourth-generation auto repair professional and the owner of Schneider’s Auto Repair in Simi Valley, Calif. He is an industry educator, author, seminar facilitator, and blogger at mitchschneidersworld.com. Contact him at mschneider@ratchetandwrench.com.

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