I don't care if you sell Rolls Royces, Cartier watches, McDonald's hamburgers or hardwood flooring, sooner or later you will have an unhappy customer. Why? Because expectations have not been met.

The one thing in business we all have in common from time-to-time is the unforeseen customer complaint. I don’t care if you sell Rolls Royces, Cartier watches, McDonald’s hamburgers or hardwood flooring, sooner or later you will have an unhappy customer. Why? Because, simply stated, expectations have not been met.

Yes, as perfect as we all like to believe we are at business, we will have the occasional screw-up. We might ship the wrong item; short-ship the quantity; oops, the color doesn’t match; a cracked board here, a missing tongue there…and it always pops up just when you start to think things are humming along just fine.

And yet you still find yourself asking, “How is this possible?”

So what are you going to do about it? How do you react? First, you have to accept the premise that no matter how good your products or services are, on occasion you will have an unhappy customer. Once you accept this, it’s time to take a look at my “Eight Ways to Turn a Problem into a Plus!”

1. Don’t be Defensive.Be a good listener. Ask questions, access the situation, and get all the facts, first and foremost. Don’t jump to conclusions, don’t try to place the blame elsewhere, and especially not onto the customer.

2. Customer Service Means Just That. Customer service means servicing the customer. The most important person or persons in your business are those on the frontline with the customer. They take the phone calls, accept the orders, and communicate information back to the customer. Your customer care personnel also usually get the complaint firsthand, so they have to be well trained in how to diffuse a difficult situation and make a happy customer out of a disgruntled one.

Simple, you say? Don’t take it lightly. This can make or break a customer relationship. And lest we forget, customers are so hard to get and so easy to lose.

3. Be Upfront.  From the onset, explain that wood is a product of nature and is therefore imperfect. Explain this from the get-go and you will avoid a boatload of headaches. The customer needs to know this and what it means.

Hardwood flooring grading rules are available from NOFMA and NWFA, with pictorial examples to show your customers. Specifically point out what is allowed for different grades of wood flooring, and especially:
  • Sound knots. What size is allowed.
  • Tiny worm or pin holes. They are acceptable in certain grades.
  • Mineral streaks. What size and how many are allowed.
  • Color variation in the wood within the same species. Show examples of the color range up front and explain this is normal.
  • Water and wood don’t mix. Educate the customer on proper maintenance and product limitations. Be sure to recommend and explain the proper wood flooring for above-, on-, and below-grade circumstances. An informed customer will be a satisfied customer.
  • Humidity and ambient moisture affects wood as it expands and contracts with the seasons. Again, educate the customer. The NWFA has several publications that explain these facts very well.
4. Communication.  In many instances the problem is merely a matter of miscommunication. Human nature is such that people don’t always hear things properly, or they just “didn’t get it.” People usually get upset when there is either a lack of information or misinformation.

The lack of providing timely important information on your part is unforgiveable. There is no excuse for not properly confirming an order and communicating the delivery date or scheduling the installation date.

5. Follow up.  The best way to fix a problem? Avoid it in the first place. Set appointment reminders about crews coming over, materials being delivered, or an estimator coming over. People forget or don’t get it right over the phone.

Follow up with an e-mail, text message, or leave a voicemail. But follow up. You must communicate a delay or an issue to the customer as quickly and politely as humanly possible. Make every effort to accommodate the customer’s schedule.

6. The Customer is Always Right.  You bet! Well, not really, but they don’t need to know that, now do they? Does showing the customer that you recognize and understand that their expectations have not been met mean that there is a problem? Of course. But regardless of whose fault it is…suck it up, get it straightened out to your customer’s full satisfaction and move on to more productive business issues. And showing them your understanding will go miles toward minimizing any damage your reputation might otherwise have had to bear.

7. Make it Right…Right Now. After you have listened carefully to your disgruntled customer, expressed empathy, have a clear understanding of and recognize there really is a problem, you must take quick and decisive action. Time is money. The longer you try to dodge the customer or dance around the issue…the worse you make the situation and the longer your money is not in your bank account.

8. Keep Your Cool.  How many of you have had the “Customer from Hell”?  You know, the one who thinks everyone is out to get ‘em? The material is just not right; it wasn’t installed properly; the color is off or the always-classic, “I just don’t like it.”

There are the times you just want to throw your hands up and say “That’s it, I’m outta here.” It’s so easy to walk away. But what about your reputation, your integrity, your standing in the business community?

The best marketing in the world is word-of-mouth selling from a happy customer. Well, guess what: it works both ways. A negative review by just one unhappy customer can kill you, and you never knew it was happening.

My advice? Take advantage of problems that occur. Recognize that this is a great opportunity to show off your exceptional customer care skills, and turn the problem into a plus. Happy customers get you more customers, and nothing is better than a happy repeat customer!