May 24, 2002
Handling customer complaints:
Proactive steps for success

By Diane Stewart-Rose

In spite of your best efforts to promote good customer relations, problems occasionally arise which result in customer complaints. How you handle these complaints may mean the difference between a dissatisfied customer and one with the confidence to continue to do business with your establishment, secure in the knowledge that their satisfaction is your number one priority.

     It's the Victoria Day weekend - hopefully the busiest of the season, and a small crowd has gathered to watch an irate customer complain loudly that you are sold out of dwarf double Shasta daisies. (If only you had known about the feature article in your local newspaper by a noted garden celebrity!) Your challenge is to handle their concerns in a professional manner that reflects well on your business. Complaint handling is not a science, but following a few basic rules will help you to proceed to a positive outcome.

Empower your employees
It is up to the owner to set policies and establish the rules for a workable refund and return procedure. Depending on the structure of the business, complaints regarding these policies should most likely be handled by the owner. However, sales people, and junior and senior managers should all feel supported by the owner to make the necessary decisions to defend the business or rule in favour of the customer when returns or refunds are required. Your policy should be clearly stated in your employee manual or job description. Even the most junior, short-term employee should be instructed at the outset on how to direct an upset customer to a qualified staff member.

     Clerks, cashiers and carryout staff are often the front-line workers who have the most interaction with your clients. If they have been instructed to be courteous and helpful they will make the desired positive final impression.

Written policies require flexibility
In our increasingly competitive retail world, return and exchange policies are usually very generous and designed to set the parameters for customer satisfaction. When we encounter situations where this is not the case, such as the one-day-only after Christmas return policy that was not properly posted, we are invariably disappointed.

     In the retail garden centre business, where so much of the product sold is perishable, it is often difficult to use the parameters of 100 per cent customer satisfaction as our dictate. It is unfortunate, but true, that some individuals do not properly care for their plants and then expect a full refund when it dies. Your stated policy must provide provisions for these situations. Customers are sometimes skilled at locating policy loopholes. John Reeves, president of Reeves Florist and Nursery, a Toronto-area garden centre for over 75 years, reviews their company's return and replacement policy on an annual basis in consultation with their department managers. As Reeves points out, "the real world is a test of policy and employee attitude." In actual practice, says Reeves, it is often "policy on the fly," as employees seek to resolve each situation with the best possible outcome. "The truth is, you want your customer to come back."

Better staff and staffing makes for better customer relationships
A sign posted in the window of a specialty store invited job candidates to apply if they were "courteous, good natured and of a good disposition." While this sounded like an advertisement for Mary Poppins, once inside the store I found that the management had actually followed through in their candidate selection process and the staff were most attentive and professional. It has been my experience that careful adver­tising and interviewing techniques go a long way towards locating pleasant, hard-working employees for your garden centre. Follow up with proper training and if possible, a well-designed employee manual.

     Establishing a staffing schedule is not easy, as unpredictable factors, especially the weather, can affect traffic flow. Nonetheless, records from previous seasons should be kept and referred to when scheduling. Be sure to have plenty of staff on hand for the six to eight busiest weeks of the year. Many spring customers will need to purchase more items later in the season and you can't afford to not make a good first impression.

     Once again, Reeves makes a clearly stated reality check when he points out that: "Customers have service level expectations in any industry, even those such as ours, which are highly seasonal. The challenge is to hire skilled people to deal with hugely fluctuating customer counts."

Efficiency counts
When establishing a return and refund policy, be sure to also consider how those policies will be implemented. A recent trip to a box store to return an item impressed me with that particular store's efficiently and obviously well thought out system. People waiting to make returns or register their complaints were directed to a separate room allocated specifically for that purpose. There were a number of desks manned by experienced staff and a numbering system ensured that customers were dealt with in a fair manner.

     Although it can be difficult at busier times of the year, customers need to know their concerns will be dealt with in a timely fashion. According to Terry Murphy, coordinator of the Ontario region Canadian Certified Horticultural Technician (CCHT) program, which also includes certification for retail garden centre employees, "a quick response will usually minimize the complaint; otherwise it festers. Dealing with a problem now, rather than later, almost always results in the least expensive solution."

Reduce the potential for complaints
The most proactive way of dealing with customer complaints is to devise strategies that will avoid them from occurring in the first place. Educating your customers can go a long way to reducing the risk of failure.

     A fairly typical example is the purchase of a New Guinea Impatiens hanging basket on Mothers Day weekend. Hung outside in a cold, windy spot, it is returned on Victoria Day weekend as the product failed to perform and provide optimum satisfaction (i.e. it died). Ideally, the customer should have received very specific instructions on the care and maintenance of this product at the time of purchase. Most customers do not deliberately mistreat plant material because they believe it will be replaced as a part of your store's customer policy. Plant failure is a direct result of their lack of knowledge.

     If your store's policy is to provide a replacement plant, the customer should go home with adequate instructions to prevent the same thing from reoccurring a second time. Sometimes, suggesting an alternate selection of a hardier nature is a good strategy.

     Written or even verbal instructions for the plant's care should be provided. Special tools or fertilizers increase the plant's chances of survival and can be a profitable add-on sale as well.

Put your customer at ease
Not only do most customers not purposely abuse their plant material, they are often very uncom­fortable when it is necessary to ask for a replacement.

     "The best thing we can do is make the customer who has a complaint feel at ease," says Mike Dytnerski, president of Clargreen Gardens, a long-time supplier of specialty plants and products to the Mississauga marketplace. "Don't question them right away, let the customer tell their side of the story, advises Dytnerski. "First listen attentively and then take immediate action. If the staff member is not able to make a decision, they should refer the matter to their supervisor immediately. Be generous; turn the situation into a positive experience the customer will want to share with her friends."

     For most retail garden centres, complaints and returns make up only a small percentage of their overall sales, and it is important to keep this in mind when dealing with an irate customer. Stay focused on the 1,000 customers you deal with and help to satisfy their gardening needs. Remain focused and deal positively with the few who are unhappy. Remember - it costs much more to generate new customers than it does to keep current customers happy and loyal.

Diane Stewart-Rose is a lover of gardening and the garden centre industry. She lives and works in Toronto as an advertising consultant.