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Customer Service: Pleasing the Impossible Customer

What I learned working at the library, Part 2

As we noted in Part 1 of this series, customer service is a common thread that runs across a great many industries. My job as a public library professional places me in the customer service role, and, in that position, I’ve learned a great deal about how to deal with patrons that can be translated into any encounter a business owner can face when dealing with customers.

Last time, we looked at the day-in and day-out grind of dealing with customer issues and complaints. This time, we look at the “hall of fame” customer service challenges—and you know who they are. We’re talking about the people who are not really satisfied by anything you try to do. You can see at some point in your attempts to please that you and your transaction aren’t really the biggest problem these customers are coping with. From there you’ll have to decide what’s next.

I’m going to admit right up front that, in this case, you have all the advantages over me. I have to deal with every single person who comes to my desk. I work for a public entity that serves the general public and, as long as a customer is acting within the Code of Conduct, I simply can’t make that person leave the building, no matter how intensely he may be annoying me.

You have more power, and can block customers from your business, but that’s an extreme solution, isn’t it? You don’t really want to build your business by banning customers any more than we want to ban patrons. Of course, you’ll do what you have to do and so will we, but the focus is first on smoothing feathers and keeping customers, product and process moving along.

Sometimes, it’s all in your approach

We had a captain from our local police department come to talk about approaching problematic patrons in safe and appropriate ways. He showed us a stance he trains all his rookie officers to take when they approach someone. Most people find arms crossed across their chests to be a position of strength, he explained, but, actually, that position is quite confrontational.

Write your rules and explain yourself with positive energy: ‘Refunds and returns are welcome for 30 days’

It says, “I believe you’re going to do something dangerous, and I’m already on guard before we even begin to speak.” That is likely to escalate a situation as the person being spoken to can already feel the implied threat.

Instead, he recommended we cross one arm over our torsos and hold the other hand up to our chins. Take a minute, and you’ll see, this suggests thoughtfulness and maybe even a willingness to hear the person out. Within a second, the hand on your chin can turn into a fist blocking your face, and your resting arm can protect your torso. What a revelation that was!

Try it, you’ll see it works.

So, what does this have to do with customers you’ll never see in person? Your policies and procedures are your shields, where mine are my arms. Write your rules and explain yourself with positive energy. No need to say, “We won’t accept returns after 30 days.” Instead, simply say, “Refunds and returns are welcome for 30 days.”

Go back over your old listings and make sure all your language is guarding you, while still projecting thoughtfulness and a willingness to work with your customers to meet their needs. You can always step up your game if things begin to go wrong, but at least you’ll begin your customer encounters with the right stance.

If you’re getting nowhere, switch personnel

Sometimes you and a customer simply don’t click. It’s hard to explain why that happens, but it does. Never hesitate to call in help from someone else. Even if you work at home and don’t have any employees, sometimes turning it over to a spouse or trusted friend will allow you to diffuse a situation, while your partner comes to some sort of reasonable conclusion.

By switching voices, your customer may feel a bit of a victory, but what do you care about that? You just want the transaction done, and the problem gone.

Here’s a perfect example: We have a young man who comes into our library, often at our busiest times, and asks us to check on the availability of maybe 15 to 20 music CDs. If the items aren’t available, he’ll want a hold placed on each one. On a quiet afternoon with little traffic, this is never a problem. On a Wednesday morning with the building bursting with preschoolers and their families attending story time, this isn’t a good thing.

The young man has some challenges, but he is always respectful and never in violation of our Code of Conduct. Still, his demand, legitimate as it is, is also annoying. Some staff members have less patience for him than I do.

There is no disappointment if you don’t solve the problem, just as long as someone you trust has

I decided I would take on the task of helping him. I know my manager, stressed as she is with issues I don’t have to deal with, is not the person to help this frustrating customer at our busiest time. I learned to first check his record, because he often asks to place holds for things he has already requested.

That, in itself, cuts down my face-to-face time. When he begins to ask for more attention than I can reasonably provide, I’ll simply ask him to call us later in the day for more, and explain that I really have to move on to helping others. He is always OK with my level of attention and its duration because he knows I have done my best to help him. That’s all he—and maybe your frustrating customer—really wanted in the first place.

So know your strengths and weaknesses, and know those of the people who surround you in your business. Remember, there is no disappointment if you don’t solve the problem, just as long as someone you trust has.

Never apologize for doing your job

One of the best pieces of advice for dealing with angry customers I’ve ever received is, “Don’t apologize for doing your job.”

When I approach someone who has fallen asleep in the library, I don’t wake him up with, “I’m sorry to wake you, but…” I’m not sorry to wake him. It’s my job to make sure people don’t sleep in the library. Instead I’ll say, “You may not have realized you’ve dozed off, but…”

Sometimes when I wake someone, he’s not happy. In advance of the wake-up call, I may alert the librarian in charge or the deputy sheriff who patrols our building. I don’t necessarily want them to do this part of my job for me, I just want the people who are in a position to take the disgruntled patron out of our space to be nearby, and I want the assurance that I can safely approach this potentially dangerous interaction knowing I have back up.

You have the advantage of blocking a problematic customer, so you may only ever have one miserable encounter with her. Or you can get the powers behind your marketplace to step in, if need be. But just as I don’t want to abdicate my job responsibilities to those of higher rank, you probably want to handle most of your disputes on your own, too. Just know which ones may need the big guns, and know how and when to call in those guns.

In our next and final installment of customer service advice gained from the library, we’ll look at how we manage internal customer service. “Internal customer service?” you may ask. Yes, there is such a thing, and getting this type of service right can make a huge difference in the way your business grows and thrives.

About the author

Brad & Debra Schepp
Brad and Debra Schepp are the authors of 20 books, including eBay PowerSeller Secrets and The Official Success Guide: Insider Tips and Strategies for Sourcing Products from the World's Largest B2B Marketplace. Their most recent book is How to Find a Job on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Brad is also a literary agent for Waterside Productions. For further information, visit the couple's website, Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

  • Ken Hawkins

    Thank you for this very helpful advice. I have just experienced the faceless barrier that is know as Ebay Customer Support giving me patronising advice on how to improve my seller dashboard. I always give detailed descriptions, accurate photographs, good packaging, cheap postage and prompt dispatch yet it would appear that statistics tell a different story than the one I perceive. I am contacted by patronising faceless arbiters of correct business procedure and damned by faceless unaccountable people, Ebay is unwilling to be specific.and I have no right to question. Using the above advice, I am going to amend my terms and conditions of sale to see if there is an improvement

    • dwshelf

      ^^I am going to amend my terms and conditions of sale to see if there is an improvement

      Few ebay buyers read TOS, because they are unenforceable. You need to give up on the idea that you can control buyers in any important way.

      Do the best you can. Accept that you will occasionally encounter unfair criticism and complaint. Realize that blaming anyone else, ever, is at best neutral in its effect on future experience.

      Any change is about you. It’s not about ebay cs or buyers, who will continue as they always have been.

    • Lexxiconn

      Whilst I concur with dwshelf in general, I have to state that TOS help set customer expectations and can avoid or short circuit many issues. e.g. I state clearly that the address eBay sends me in the invoice is the one I will send the item to unless they let me know before paying for the item. If it is wrong and I have mailed it to them, then all cost of resending the parcel is theirs. In the few cases that the customer has moved and failed to update their ebay address resulting in the parcel being sent to their old address, I have never had to resend or deal with any dispute beyond highlighting this in my reply to “where is my parcel?” requests. It is not an issue of enforceability, just anticipating problems and highlighting in advance the probable outcomes.

      For some buyers you can never do right because they just don’t like or did not really need the product they bought off you, or something else in their lives are giving them grief and they are taking it out on you because you are a faceless entity they have some power over. Don’t take it personally. Do accept all criticism and analyse it for what you can learn from it as we can only learn from our mistakes (if you are always doing it right there will not be anything more to learn). Concentrate on fixing only things you have direct control over.
      Understand that a person can be a hero to one group and a villain to another because people have different perspectives. You don’t have to be liked by everyone to survive or succeed. Best of luck.

  • Hans

    I don’t get how your library stories are that helpful for online sellers who never meet their customers face to face. I doubt I will ever have to protect my face with one hand and my torso with the other arm.

  • Barbara

    What about a customer who damages an item to the point that it cannot be resold? This damage could not be done in transit yet EBay sided with the customer and now I am left with a broken Shirley Temple doll plus postage out of my pocket. eBay absolutely does not care about the seller!

    • dwshelf

      This isn’t really a solvable problem for any online seller. The goal is to mitigate, not to eliminate such losses.

      1. There is usually some dispute as to who caused the breakage.
      2. Some sellers package in a way which means that damage is likely upon opening (excessive inner taping, for example), and then expect buyer to be held responsible since buyer broke the stuff.

      We cannot just grant such disputes to seller based on seller’s report. Instead, they go to buyer, and seller is left to manage.

      The real goal: keep your emotions out of it. Figure out ahead of time what you’re going to do when (not if) buyer reports damage, and then do it graciously.

  • Diana

    Thank you for your words of wisdom and examples based on real life experience. You don’t need to interact with customers face to face to apply your advice. Attitude crosses the phone and internet as well.

  • Casmige

    “Buyers” need to be “Educated”.
    eBay refuses to do this, so Sellers must find opportunities to do it.


    “Shipping” as a Service is chosen & selected BY THE BUYER.
    Most often-times they (Like all of us) choose the CHEAPEST (USPS).

    “Sellers” Simply & Merely Honour the choice & selection of the BUYER and act as a a courtesy interim drop-off service to dispatch the Buyers order with the shipping service that the BUYER Selected & Paid for.

    What I do when they want to “Pitch their complaint”?

    I take the Date/Time Stamp from their PayPal transaction & I show them factually when they paid for the item.

    I then also take the USPS “Acceptance” Date/Time Stamp and I show them by “Doing the Math” for them when they paid for the item & when we, the Seller” can PROVE to the Buyer that we handed off their order to the shipping service THEY Selected & Paid for.

    I settle the issue by asking a question prefaced by the “Math” in an eMail follow-up note to “Buyers” (Mostly International ones since USA Domestic isn’t such an “Issue”) For example:

    “So, By the Date/Time Scans we can honestly prove to you when we handed off your order to the shipping service you, the Buyer, Selected & paid for, which is 6 hours from the time you paid for it. We have a 1 Business Day Processing time however 6 hours is pretty FAST, wouldn’t you agree??. Also, Naturally you also realise that an eBay Seller cannot manage nor control what USPS does once we hand your order over to them. At that point? The parcel & your order is completely & literally “Out of our hands” to further control, manage, or process. This Interim time is what you, the Buyer, Should take into consideration in grading an eBay seller….not for the time that USPS, Your Country’s Customs Bureau or YOUR Country’s Postal Service takes in getting you the parcel & your order. eBay sellers would prefer “FedEx”, “DHL”, & even “UPS” Since those Organisation 100% Control the parcel from acceptance to delivery to you in a very short amount of time However those fees they charge to do so are about TRIPLE that of USPS. Sellers do not make the choices for shipping service, Buyers do. Please respectfully take this into consideration when you are wondering where you order & parcel is. Thank you!! =D”.

    As an eBay Seller, I am ALSO an eBay BUYER…..a BUYER of eBay Services and if they expect US to watch our DSR’s & Jump Through Hoops & deliver “Best Practices” as to Customer service, then WHY CAN’T eBay also abide by their OWN Expectations of US, as “Sellers” & also provide US, as “Buyers of eBay Services” the same respect & considerations they expect us to deliver to our Buyers????!!!!

    I’ve begged eBay to formulate Tutorials to educate and set the “Mind-Set” & expectations of Buyers to a reasonable level with respect to their order and the processing/delivery times since with eBay endorsing the tutorial it would lend more credence to the issue & it would/could be presented in a unified FAQ Aspect & outline that we, as “Sellers” could simply provide as a LINK to consult for Buyers who are wondering how or where their #$%^&*(#@$%^&#$%^& Order is.

    It would SOLVE 50% of my Customer Follow-ups, especially on International Orders.

    Of course there are always those apparently insulted by some-one ELSE “Doing the Math” for them when they certainly haven’t even taken the time to click on the Track & Confirm number in their OWN eBay Transaction Aspect & chase the figuring on their own to determine the Answer to their Posed Concern of (Even though the “Shipping” certainly & easily provided ME with the available info I needed to respond to the following): __________________________________________________________________
    “Hi. I haven’t reviewed this item, and the shipping is not providing me any information can u please provide me some info on when I can expect this? Thanks – mmdb32611”

    Our reply (Within an hour of getting his eMail inquiry no less):
    Dear mmdb32611,

    Hey there, Marco!!,

    Let’s Take a look at the “Math” To-gether so you can “blame” the right people, & not get mad at us for anything that we can’t control or manage, Ok??

    Your PayPal Payment transaction has a Date/Time Stamp on it of:
    Sep 22, 2012 03:33:22 CDT Transaction ID: 47W2092414092450U

    First-Class Mail®

    Step #1). Electronic Shipping Info Received September 22, 2012

    (Step #1 is when we printed out your shipping label).

    Step #2). Accepted at USPS Origin Sort Facility September 22, 2012, 9:33 pm DALLAS, TX 75248

    (Step #2 is when we PERSONALLY handed your parcel & order over to the USPS Clerk who then scanned it into the USPS System)

    After Step #2??, the Item & parcel is literally & completely out of our hands to control or manage at that point.

    As an eBay Buyer, this is what you should “Grade” the eBay Seller on: the Interim Handling time.

    Some quick Math shows that from the time you ordered & paid to the time we dropped it off was the VERY SAME DAY, & Only a mere 6 hours after you made the PayPal Payment!!

    SIX Hours from the time you paid to the time it was dropped off with USPS is pretty fast isn’t it??

    Step #3). Processed at USPS Origin Sort Facility September 22, 2012, 10:48 pm COPPELL, TX 75099
    (Step #3 is where “Home-Land Security” or USA Customs Bureau inspects the package to make sure nothing is dangerous or illegal inside)

    Step #4). Depart USPS Sort Facility September 23, 2012 COPPELL, TX 75099
    (Step #4 is when it actually was handed BACK to USPS from Home-Land Security & was on its way to you!!).

    Steps #1 & #2 eBay Sellers can Control & Manage. The rest of it is literally out of our hands.

    Also??, eBay BUYERS are the ones that select the shipping service (Usually based upon “Price$”) & pay for it. We do the same when we “Buy” so we understand it 100%.

    An eBay Seller simply honours the choice of the eBay Buyers selection & conveys the article over to the shipping service the Buyer selected & paid for.

    Does that help??.

    Domestic USPS Takes a week to 10 Days Max.


    The Buyers Follow-up:

    “To Whom it may Concern,I find the tone of your email quite condescending. For your information I am a college educated adult not a 17 year old teenager. I can do math quite fine and I can also understand the logistics of shipping! I simply stated that I wanted some information on where my package was and about when I would receive it as to have someone here to bring it in for me! I was not putting “BLAME” on anyone , so please DO NOT put words in my mouth! If you look closely I have 100% feedback on my eBay account which, ” lets do the math” would mean I have purchased quite a few items on eBay and CLEARLY understand how the process works. I am looking forward to receiving my item, but you can rest assure due to your oh so pleasant customer service I will not be purchasing any more items from you! Have a Great Day!- mmdb32611″


    To which I immediately called the Buyer to offer apologies for even implying any inferring of Condescension as that simply was not the least of our intents or purposes. What are you going to do?? He simply could’ve had gone to his OWN PayPal eMail notification (Sellers get a Copy of it also) & taken the time/Date Stamp & then Clicked on the USPS Tracking number in his eBay Transaction Console & opened that up & then done the “Math”. Here’s where I actually INTEND A bit of Constructional Condescension: Re: “For your information I am a college educated adult not a 17 year old teenager. I can do math quite fine and I can also understand the logistics of shipping!” If that is SO TRUE, then for a logical certainty, I should not have had to actually lay out the matter in such simplistic step-by-step terms & actually “Do the math” for him & settle it with the facts that once a Seller lets loose of a parcel over to the shipping service (Easily verified by some-one well acquainted with “Shipping Logistic’s”) that the entire matter of where is my order is not at all within the realm of our control nor a right matter for us to even chase down for a Buyer.

    I am English 2nd. Language.

    eBay with ALL THEIR Resources would do a MUCH BETTER Coordinated Job of Addressing this matter for ALL SELLERS in a unified well-defined & presented format to ensure that Sellers & Buyers are not at-odds against each other on issues like this where a BUYER needs to step up & do their OWN due-Diligence & not just rely on a Seller to do the math for them & then get upset when they do.

    If eBay would (I know they are “Able” they are not willing maybe) do this, it would allow SELLERS to focus on proper “Service Delivery” that is actually within their ability to mange AND Control…..

    It’s what eBay should consider “Best Practices” in their service Delivery to their “Buyers” of their “Services & Product”: eBay Sellers.


  • CJ

    I don’t agree with the “don’t apologize” advice. Why not? I’m not interested in who’s right, I’m interested in resolving a problem and, I hope, keeping a customer happy. If a customer wants to see me beat my chest and recite mea culpas, I’ll do it. Libraries are way different from for profit businesses, and public employees have way different responsibilities from people trying to create a customer base.

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