Most humans are designed to dislike confrontation, but sometimes it happens. You have a boarder who had a confrontation with one of your staff and is angry. Your best trainer gets upset about the arena not being groomed in time for lessons. One of your staff messes up a supplement feeding with a long-time boarder. If you are the owner or manager, then you are the one who has to defuse the situation and deal with the unhappy person.
The first thing you or any of your staff should say to an unhappy customer is: “I’m sorry you are unhappy.”
That doesn’t mean you are accepting or placing blame, but that you acknowledge that the other person is not satisfied, and you don’t like it any more than they do. Many times just saying “I’m sorry” will take the edge off of the person’s unhappiness (or anger) and allow you to get to the bottom of the problem rather than just dealing with the emotions. Don’t fight with your customers.
If one of your barn or farm staff has a customer call (or approach them in person) who doesn't stop at just complaining and becomes more and more angry, your instructions to your staff should be to tell the unhappy person that they need to speak with the owner or manager (or whomever is paid enough to take the abuse and has the experience to take it seriously, but not to take it personally). Do not allow your staff to argue with your customers.
Once you are in front of that customer or speaking with him or her on the phone, and you have said that you are sorry they are unhappy, the next step is to say: “Let’s figure out what we can do to solve your problem.”
In my experience, most times the person just wanted someone to listen, recognize there is/was a problem, and apologize and make it right. Keep in mind the person might need to tell you the problem several times in several ways, and your response is always the same: “I’m sorry that happened.” “I’m sorry you experienced that.” “I’m sorry you felt Mary was rude when she was cleaning your horse's stall.”
Notice in each one of these examples you are apologizing for what that person felt, not an actual action. While that might seem like a cop-out, your attorney will appreciate it if a complaint ever does go to the next level.
Sometimes the solution is something like: “I appreciate that you took the time to let me know (what happened, how you feel, etc.). That will help me make sure this problem doesn’t happen to you, or any of our other boarders, in the future.”
Sometimes you can even ask: “Do you have a suggestion of how you would like to see this kind of problem handled in the future?”
Sometimes making them “think from your seat” will actually calm them down. Suddenly, they are part of the solution team, and that often makes people feel better.
And of course, if you are in a position of power, giving personal attention to the problem is always a good way to defuse the situation: “I’ll personally talk to John (who is in charge of conditioning the arena) and the other barn staff who help him and make sure they understand how important a groomed arena is to you and your students, and if the person scheduled to do the work can't finish it on time to let me know so I can get someone else out there.”
It's also good to let any of your customers know that YOU are always available if they have a problem: “I appreciate your candor and that you took the time to talk to me. Please feel free to contact me directly in the future if you have any other problems.”
Let the unhappy customer know that you will take action.
The Next Step
When you or your staff get an unhappy customer, make it a challenge to try and turn that person into a brand ambassador—someone who will spread good things about your company, products or services. Don’t just pay lip service to a person or problem, do something.
What if you went on your social media and told that story? “An unhappy customer called us today and said one of our barn staff was rude to her at stall cleaning time. After Jennifer (the manager) talked to her, she met with all the other farm staff and addressed the importance of courtesy to everyone at our facility. We invite all of our customers to connect with us when they have a problem. And we love to hear from you when things are going well!”
What does that do? It shows all of your customers that you take your customer service seriously. It shows you are transparent with your problems and are working to make your equine business better. And most importantly, it encourages the sharing of good stories.
If someone does send you an unhappy or negative comment on your social media, don't delete it (unless it is vulgar or mentions a staff member or another boarder by name); address it right there. This is really hard for most people; you just want to make it go away. Remember that it is always better to have someone address a problem in your "back yard" (your own social media) than somewhere you might never see. Handled properly, you can turn the story around and let the others who share your social media space know that you take these types of complaints seriously and that you do something about them.
Mrs. Smith writes: "I was at the stable to see my horse Happy yesterday afternoon, and one of the staff was really rude when Happy kicked some straw into the aisle. I can't believe they let someone like that work at the stable."
The manager or owner might post: "I have talked to Mrs. Smith about this incident. I have talked to the specific staff member and the rest of the employees at XYZ Stable so that they understand that our customers come first, and rudeness will not be tolerated."
If during your conversation with Mrs. Smith she becomes an advocate, ask her to say so in the same place she stated her problem. If during your conversation she says something like, "I was just so surprised because she is usually so nice to me and Happy that it really hurt my feelings." You might jump on that better emotion and explain why the staff member was edgy that day, "She just got a call that her puppy was missing, and she was really upset. But that was no reason to take it out on you. But if you think our staff is friendly and polite most of the time, would you mind saying that on our Facebook?"
One word of warning: Don’t respond to unhappy customer emails via email, especially with some long explanation. Your words could be copied out of context and used against you. Suggest the person call you at his or her convenience and supply a phone number.
Take your customer complaints seriously; an unhappy customer can spread a lot of ill will in a short time in today’s digital world. But remember, often an unhappy customer can be turned into a brand advocate, and that should be your goal!