Customer service in the real world sometimes comes down to a negotiation. When you have an issue to resolve, often you and your organization are trying to find a way to make the customer happy without giving away the store and the customer (usually) is trying to get what she feels is fair.
While I don’t think negotiation is the best framework for viewing these situations, the underlying dynamic can be remarkably similar. In a negotiation, one generally tries to get as much as possible and give as little as possible. A customer service issue is similar, but different. While your goal should not be to get as much as possible from the customer; it can often be to limit how much you give in order to satisfy him.
In this way, the dynamics of negotiation can have very real implications for customer service, and the techniques and stratagems of negotiation can be useful.
Generally, in negotiation, you do not start with your best offer. It’s an expected part of the game. If you start at 100 and I start at 200, in many cases, we don’t expect to end up at either of those numbers; we expect to end up somewhere between. Of course, negotiation is an incredibly complex topic, but for frontline customer service, it can be as simple as figuring out what type of customer you are working with.
Back in April, I sent out a very abbreviated version of this post to subscribers of The Customer Conversation. My buddy Jeremy Watkin, Director of Customer Service at Phone.com and a principal of the excellent Communicate Better Blog, sent me an email, which he has graciously allowed me to reprint here:
This is interesting food for thought when it comes to customers asking for free stuff or compensation. I think there are three types of customers:
- Those that just want the service to work. They aren’t seeking compensation when things don’t work. They know they have the power to take their business elsewhere.
- Those that appreciate the gesture of trying to make things right when something goes wrong.
- Those that always want a credit and will negotiate until they feel like they won something.
- Those that never actually intend to pay us anything but have the audacity to ask for free stuff or badger us to reactivate their account. (That was a bonus– I don’t really consider these people customers.)
As customer service pros we do need to become adept at figuring what category those customers fit into and tailoring our response and offer of compensation accordingly.
Once you’ve figured out what type of customer you’re working with, then you have to decide if you should or should not start with your best offer. Here is the best rule of thumb I can give you:
If you expect the customer to be satisfied with what you are offering or you really don’t have any other options, then just tell them what you can or will do. There is no point in playing games. It’s bad enough if the customers are playing games; why add to it?
If, on the other hand, you expect that the answer will not be well received or if you sense the customer will not take your first offer, no matter what it is, then hold back. Leave yourself some room and allow the customer to feel like she “got you” to give more – to let her feel like she won.
Some people are just negotiators. It doesn’t matter how right or wrong anyone is; they love the game and love seeing how much they can get out of a person of company. When working with one of these people, you should try not to start with your best offer. You’ll have nowhere to go, and they will not end up satisfied.
As mentioned above, I don’t think “negotiation” is the best framework for viewing customer service issues; I prefer to look at these issues through the lens of customers seeking accommodation. It is our job to find an accommodation that is reasonable and that satisfies and hopefully even delights the customer. However, some customers have unreasonable demands and will not be satisfied with anything you offer them. Once you’ve tried your best to accommodate these customers, it might be time to think back to the principles of negotiation and to remember that a good negotiator knows when to walk away.