Customers: Should We Slug 'Em or Hug 'Em?

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Recently, I’ve attended several gatherings of kitchen and bath designers – vendor conferences, training seminars and similar venues – where I’ve been struck by the deep ambivalence many designers and dealers feel toward their customers. While we clearly can’t exist without customers, many of us are growing intensely frustrated by the recurring challenges of keeping them happy.

Customers, it would seem, are difficult people. They whine, they ask dumb questions, they expect all kinds of services for free, they expect us to provide services that we don’t offer. They get upset when they don’t get what they think they paid for, and sometimes they even get upset when they do get what they paid for. They’re so emotional! We love them…but we’re afraid of them, too.

The ambivalence of the industry’s attitude was crystallized for me by the “welcome to the world of kitchen design” gift I received from the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) when I completed my endorsed certificate program: a handy text called Dangerous Customers. “Wow!” I thought. “Is it really that bad out there?” Why not give a gift of Betsy Sanders’ Fabled Service, with its stories about Nordstrom’s outstanding customer service, or Jack Mitchell’s Hug Your Customers, highlighting his business’ approach to treating customers like family?

No, the NKBA seems to be saying – and many of us seem to agree – that customers are potential threats to our livelihood!

But aren’t there better ways to protect ourselves from our customers than hiring lawyers? There’s little doubt that achieving outstanding customer satisfaction is a difficult task in the retail world, and perhaps even more so in a business as fraught with emotion – and big bucks – as the kitchen and bath design industry.

It may be that the best defense is a good offense: There are techniques for changing our approaches and our attitudes that can go a long way toward staving off problems before they get started. And the good news is, these techniques don’t have to cost a lot to you or your business.

Let me say up front that not one of the techniques I’m suggesting is a substitute for competence and integrity. The fact is, without both of those qualities, we’re never going to have satisfied customers. But while competence and integrity are clearly necessary, they’re not all that’s needed when it comes to achieving outstanding customer satisfaction.

To produce outstanding customer satisfaction, I’d suggest four techniques to approaching not only our customers, but also ourselves. They are:

  • Empathy.
  • Optimism.
  • Education.
  • Selectivity.

How many of us have built a new home or remodeled our own kitchens? What kind of emotional toll does that process take on customers?

If, for example, you’re a working parent with a full-time job and full-time parenting responsibilities, you’re under a lot of pressure to manage your normal daily life, as well as a major construction project. It’s pretty tough to get the kids off to school in the morning if you first have to wend your way through plastic sheets and wallboard dust to your makeshift kitchen in the middle of the living room, or to come home to eat your seventeenth consecutive night of pizza or Chinese take-out. At the same time, you and your spouse may be at loggerheads about two different shades of maple stain, and which granite will look best with whichever one you choose. Add to this that you’re learning an entirely new vocabulary (what’s a flush toe kick, anyway?), making scads of decisions about things you really don’t completely understand – all the while paying lots of money for the pleasure of the experience.

As designers, we often find ourselves with some stressed-out individuals on our hands. Our clients are going through a very difficult process for the first – and perhaps only – time in their lives. Their questions and concerns, their fear of decision-making, their focus on finances, all arise from the stress of the experience.

By empathizing with our clients’ emotional state, we can modulate our own responses. Customers aren’t dragging their feet – they’re afraid of making the wrong decisions. They’re not impatient – they simply have no idea that it can take 12 weeks for cabinets to arrive on site. They’re not penny-pinching – they’re trying to balance financing a new home or kitchen with needs like college tuition, vacation plans and even daily groceries.

With empathy, we can better understand where customers are coming from and handle their concerns in ways that alleviate, rather than exacerbate, them.

Not only do we need to love our work, we need to have a core belief that everything will eventually work out just fine – and we need to make sure that all the people in our business do, too. Of course problems happen – we make a design mistake; the granite guy is late (again); the customer wants to choose a different refrigerator and range after the design has gone to the manufacturer. But nobody wants to go to a business that might as well be called “Kitchens by Eeyore.” If we’re optimistic and enthusiastic about our work, and about the people we work with – as customers, colleagues and vendors – we can deal with these issues with equanimity. We don’t go looking for the worst in people or events. We just keep working through the problems and focus on finding solutions – rather than enumerating all of the possible things that will go wrong.

Jack Mitchell says there’s no such thing as a too-difficult customer. The hard-to-please customers are the ones who offer us the best opportunities to achieve outstanding customer satisfaction. If we can satisfy them, we can satisfy anyone – and they’re the most likely ones to tell other people what an outstanding job you did for them throughout the process.

Education is really another name for managing expectations. How many customers coming in the door really understand the differences between stock, semi-custom and custom cabinets, or between soapstone and limestone? What are they really paying for when they pay up for the high-end custom cabinets – and, equally importantly, what kinds of things don’t they get when they opt for a stock or semi-custom line that doesn’t bust their budget? Do customers really understand that if they have a 12-ft. run of countertop that the granite with the huge swirling grain may not be the right choice – or, if it is, that the grain in all likelihood will not match up at the seam exactly the way they want it to?

Education is perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of our work, because it involves not only making sure clients understand what they’re getting, but also anticipating what they might think – sometimes inaccurately – that they’re getting.

It takes a lot of foresight to identify the kinds of issues that customers might worry about, the kinds of things they might not be aware of, the expectations they might have about delivery, quality, appearance, time frames and their own range of responsibilities. By taking the time to educate our customers about as many aspects of their job as we can, we exponentially maximize the possibility that they will ultimately be happy with the product and design choices they make along the way.

We need to choose to do business only with those vendors and service providers who we’ve carefully selected to provide us with the best customer satisfaction, both for ourselves and for our clients.

It’s been surprising to me how many suppliers to our industry seem to think that not returning our phone calls, not showing up when promised or providing products only after long delays, is an acceptable way to conduct business. Because we are essentially the project managers for our clients, these vendors quite often leave us holding the bag to explain to clients why we managed to choose such incompetent or inconsiderate people to work with. As you might guess, in the end, we’re the ones who look bad to our customers.

We should demand good service – and expect to pay for it – and choose to do business only with companies that provide it. Those are the companies that stand behind their products in cases when customers complain, with good reason, about poor workmanship. Those are the companies that consistently keep their commitments on availability and delivery, and that keep the lines of communication readily open when things go wrong despite all of our best efforts.

Of course, it goes without saying that they must treat our clients and their homes with respect and courtesy as well.

Despite everything we think to do, we cannot totally inoculate ourselves against the disease of customer unhappiness. Ours is a business where things go wrong and where customers are often emotional and hard to please. But if we set outstanding customer satisfaction as our goal, rather than implementing a strategy of protecting ourselves against our customers, we stand a far greater chance of making them truly happy when we take them on as clients. Even more important to remember is that outstanding customer satisfaction is what will keep new customers coming through our doors for a long, long time.