Dealing with difficult customers off-site

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For most of us, time off leads to some type of powersports entertainment. The problem is, many of us shy away from places and events that attract our own customers because somewhere along the line, we were confronted by an obnoxious, difficult customer who ruined our day. Those experiences can make one gun-shy about going where customers gather.

I know the feeling. After about a year of teaching the Harley-Davidson programs at the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute, I started running into students who would complain about their grades or another instructor, and riders who argued with my suggestions for fixing their problem — after they had asked me for my expert opinion! I reached a point where I’d had so many confrontations with obnoxious, inconsiderate customers that I stopped going to races and events. I stopped going to my favorite bar. I started hanging out on the other side of town where I wasn’t recognized. In short, I hid from my customers when I was on vacation.

A few months ago, I was in Flagstaff, Ariz., checking out the riders and machinery competing in the Pre-1916 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run. By the time riders got to Flagstaff, they had ridden more than 2,000 miles and experienced extreme hardships. Regardless of their obstacles, participants, support crew and spectators were enjoying the camaraderie while reliving the events of the ride — all but one.

Jack Stubbs, GM at Buddy Stubbs Anthem Harley-Davidson just north of Phoenix, was enjoying the event while lending support to his dad, Buddy Stubbs, who was competing on a 1915 Excelsior. I was chatting with Jack when one of his customers interrupted and started busting his balls about a battery problem he’d been having on a bike parked 125 miles away in Phoenix. Jack was very professional, trying diligently to come up with new solutions to this recurring issue. But the customer wasn’t satisfied until he’d made Jack squirm. Admittedly, this guy was one of Jack’s best customers, and while he wasn’t particularly caustic, he was persistent. And I noticed a change of mood: In five minutes, Jack went from relaxed vacation mode to concerned work mode.

This was a mild case; I know you guys have gone through some real nightmare confrontations you’d probably like to forget. I want to help. I like to believe we can respond to difficult customers encountered off-site in a way that’s good for them and easier on us. Here are four suggestions on how to make your time off more enjoyable, even when customers get in the way.

Establish a respectful dialogue. If customers start a conversation that appears to be leading to a criticism or complaint, be empathetic first. Indicate you understand what they’ve experienced is not fun and gather enough information to fully understand what’s going on. Don’t argue, or the confrontation will escalate.

Be prepared. If you encounter a someone who has broken down, arrange for a pickup. Carry business cards you can hand out so the customer has your direct line. Carry a small notebook to capture details and contact information you’ll need when you’re back at the store. Taking notes sends the message that you’re taking the situation seriously, and that real plans are being formed to deal with it effectively. Be sure to follow through on promises made.

A great example of preparation is something my friend Jon Pendleton did a few years ago when he took over the service manager’s position at a dealership that had a less-than-stellar service reputation. He had business cards printed with a free oil change coupon on one side. He knew he had to get dissatisfied customers back into the store so they could experience the changes he and his crew had made. Over that first year, Pendleton attended more than 70 motorcycle events and talked to a number of previous customers who were dissatisfied. He listened to their complaints, promised to do better, told them about the changes he had made and gave them a personal invitation and a gift to get them back for a second chance. His service department increased business by 40 percent that first year.

Avoid driveway diagnostics. The best place for diagnosing a problem is back at the store. Unless you’re a tech and the problem looks easy to solve, I wouldn’t step onto that slippery slope. No matter what your expertise, act like a good service adviser; do a thorough vehicle inspection and capture the symptoms in the customer’s words. Make an appointment, and then address the issue back at the dealership where you have everything you need. That said, we should trailer any vehicles with a safety-related issue.

Do your best. After listening empathetically (like you care) to the customer and making arrangements to get the issue resolved, let customers know that’s the best you can do at this time. Reaffirm you will work hard to correct the problem, but you’ve done all you can here and now. Most customers will understand, and you’ll be relieved of your work duties to get back into vacation mode. And stop hiding — it doesn’t look good!

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews April 2011 issue.