Handling Unhappy Clients While Sticking To Your Policies

Pleasing an unhappy dog often comes down to simple things. Taking out a leash. Saying the word, “W-A-L-K.” Bologna. Pleasing unhappy clients, however, can prove more complicated, and even dog pros with the best customer service skills find that they can’t please all the people all the time. Here are a few steps to cut down on client complaints, and suggestions for what to do when confronted by an unhappy client.

Finger selecting an unhappy face icon on a screen with three options including happy, neutral, and disappointed.An Ounce Or Two Of Prevention
Client complaints often result from confusion over your policies, so take preventative measures that will save you future headaches:

  • Know your policies inside and out, including the purpose and importance of each one. A firm grasp on your own policies allows you to communicate them to clients without nervousness or hesitation.
  • Decide now which exceptions to which policies you’ll allow. If a client cancels at the last minute, under what conditions will you waive the standard fee? Sickness? Death in the family? Only when you can fill that last-minute spot with another client? How many cancellations per client will you forgive?
  • Don’t just hand a policy sheet to the client. Go over the policies multiple times, in the contract (“Please initial each one”), in your class confirmation email, or during phone registration: “Do these drop-off times work for you?”
  • If a client tries to cancel last-minute, contact her and reiterate the policy. “Before I cancel this appointment for you, a quick reminder on our cancellation policy: You’ll still be charged for the hour, so are you sure you can’t make this time work?” Most clients will reconsider when they realize you actually enforce your policies.
  • Trainers may encounter clients with unrealistic expectations for their dog’s progress. Let clients know ahead of time what they can reasonably expect and when. If they seem frustrated, give them something to look forward to by gently turning their focus to the goals for the next session. Walkers and sitters may need to explain what’s included in the service (for example, an hour of activity with five or fewer dogs) and what isn’t (such as running errands).
  • Head off complaints before they happen. Solicit feedback or provide your clients with surveys so you know what’s working and where there’s room for improvement.

Face To Face
It may be the best medicine, but prevention is no cure-all. If a complaint comes despite your best efforts, try these four steps:

1.  Remain calm. This first step is often the hardest. It’s natural to feel defensive, but put that aside and just listen. For clarity’s sake, restate the client’s complaint so you both understand the nature of the problem. “If I understand you correctly, you’re upset that you can’t pick up your dog at 8 p.m.?”

2.  Use a little empathy. Imagine the situation from the client’s point of view. Some clients have no problem with confrontation, but for others, registering a complaint takes courage and it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge their feelings. “I can see why you’re angry/ frustrated/ concerned…”

3.  Refer back to your policies. If the complaint relates to a policy, take a moment to revisit the why behind it. For example, “I understand how this policy feels inconvenient, but let me explain why we do it this way and maybe that will help…”

4.  If appropriate, make an exception. If it feels right, see what you can offer the client within the limits of your policy, or within the exceptions to the policy you’ve already determined. Be careful here. Don’t rush to offer an exception that isn’t warranted. And never compromise on safety. When safety is at stake, restate the reasons behind your policies: “We require for everyone’s safety that dogs with a history of biting wear muzzles,” for example, or, “The drop-off times greatly limit the length of time the dogs are excited and the staff is distracted.” Emphasize the welfare of their dogs and most clients will see reason.

Real-Life Troubles In An Online World
Many clients find feedback easier to give online, where everyone, including your mother and various potential clients, can see it. We know you’re busy, but it pays to do regular online monitoring. Set Google alerts and also schedule a Google search on your business name into your weekly tasks to stay on top of your virtual reputation.

Your training in positive reinforcement methods work here, too. Thank the clients who leave you the wildest praise. But if you stumble across a complaint, tread carefully. The first step of face-to-face conflict applies here as well: remain calm. If you feel angry or defensive, step away from the computer. Take your dog for a walk. Your dog and your future conscience will thank you.

Leaving a brief, conciliatory public comment shows the client and other observers that you’re paying attention. If there’s been a simple factual error (your hours of business were misunderstood, for example) you can relay the fact with diplomacy. For other complaints it may be best to ask the client to contact you directly.

Many sites allow you to contact the customer via private message: “I was sorry to hear of your dissatisfaction with my service and I would love the opportunity to make things right.” Showing genuine concern can sometimes lead to a revised review. But clients can detect even the smallest hint of hostility, condescension, or insincerity, so ask a spouse, friend, or trusted dog pro peer (the more impartial, the better) to read your message before hitting send.

Bad Apples And Teachable Moments
Let’s face it – some clients are impossible. We’re talking about the chronically complaining, eternally unsatisfied type, and if your efforts are met with continued resistance, it may be time to cut ties. One unhappy customer can seriously affect your mood and your work, and that person simply isn’t worth the stress. The time you waste trying to placate them could be better spent finding and building new client relationships.

When dealing with this type, keep the focus on yourself. “We’re just not able to meet your needs,” works better than, “You’re never satisfied.” Better yet, if you know of a local dog pro whose policies would make for a better fit, a referral can lessen the sting.

If you find multiple clients registering the same policy complaint, however, it may be time to reevaluate your policies or, often the culprit, how you communicate your policies. (You may also need to take a look at whether you’re attracting the right clients for your service.) Remaining open to feedback and fixing recurring problems will lead to happier clients—and a happier you.

Given the complexities of human beings, it’s no wonder we sometimes prefer the company of dogs. It would be nice if a piece of bologna solved all conflicts, but with clear policies, empathy, and a cool head, you can handle even the toughest client complaints.

Want help designing successful dog pro policies for your business?
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