U.S. consumers have reached an all-time high in pickiness," reports Faye Rice in a recent issue of Fortune magazine. Today's customers are more demanding and less tolerant of defective products or inept service than ever.

This just describes the typical customer. Occasionally, no matter how well-trained and responsive your employees, a customer will enter your doors with what seems to be a personal vendetta against you.Debra, a retail store manager, had such an experience. "This guy brought almost everything back to us," Debra explained. "Some items were even several years old." The customer seemed to take the attitude of, "When I wear out a product, I'll take it back, complain and get another one."

Finally, after he had exchanged at least 10 items over a period of several months, Debra sat down with the customer and courteously explained, "I'm really sorry that we aren't able to satisfy you. I would like to be able to meet your needs, but I think you might be happier shopping at another store."

The manager said that this was contrary to all of their policies of satisfying the customer, no matter what, but this customer was obviously abusing the store beyond any reasonable doubt. In almost 20 years of experience, this was the only time that Debra had ever admitted that she could not please a customer.

Fortunately, there is a happy ending.

The customer came in a few weeks later, unexpectedly, and apologized to Debra. "I had not really realized what I had been doing," he said. "You made me stop and think." The customer further explained that he was very discouraged about being unable to shop there anymore.

The former chronic complainer is again a regular customer. And there have been no further complaints.

I am all for policies that go to great lengths to serve customers. Many effective companies regularly accept merchandise that has been obviously abused. Some stores even purchase products from competitors and sell them to their customers at no markup, to please their customers.

I am all for strong customer satisfaction policies, but once every decade or so you may meet a customer who can best be served with an honest, candid explanation of your limits.


Answer "yes" or "no" to the following:

When dealing with a chronically complaining customer, I . . .

1. Continue to be pleasant and patient.

2. Resist the temptation to overly explain our policies.

3. Am patient in listening to the customer.

4. May knowingly let the customer take advantage of me.

5. Cheerfully make returns and refunds.

6. Do not quibble over the sales receipt.

7. Am as helpful as when the customer was buying a product.

8. Verbally and non-verbally show my willingness to help.

9. Honestly want to satisfy the customer.

10. Politely explain that we may not be able to satisfy the customer only after 10 or 12 attempts to please.

"Yes" answers to all of the above suggest a realistically positive customer satisfaction policy.