Spin Control for Salespeople

You can prevent bad buzz and encourage positive word of mouth by following these seven steps when dealing with prospects and customers

By Michelle Nichols

"Good news travels fast and bad news travels farther and faster." Remember that old adage? In sales, positive word of mouth and referrals will bring you new customers, but one big mistake left untreated could undo years of your hard work in an instant.

One cautionary rule of thumb is that dissatisfied customers will tell 10 times as many folks about a bad experience than satisfied customers will about a good experience. No, it's not fair, but the best strategy to avoid having unhappy customers is prevention.

My seven keys to preventing bad buzz follow:

1. Understand expectations. To prevent unhappy customers, first accurately understand what they expect and set up systems to ensure you meet—or exceed—those expectations consistently. You may want to develop checklists to be sure you understand your customer's exact wishes. Expect to refine the lists over time as you gain more experience with them.

2. Deliver what you promise. If the name of your company is Speedy Repair Services and your slogan is "We're the fastest in town," then you need standardized business processes to ensure you provide fast service to every customer. For example, you will need dependable employees and additional experienced help you can call on during emergencies. You'll also need a large inventory of spare parts. Because you have a system in place, your customers should never be delayed by a shortage of labor or parts.

An added benefit of this preparation is that you can show any unsatisfied customer all the effort you took to ensure their pleasure. If it looks like you really tried, customers may be more understanding.

3. Act honestly. Another way to prevent unhappy customers is to be scrupulously honest. You may have to lower your customer's expectations early in the sales process, even at the risk of losing a sale. In this case, try to offer something that compensates for the shortcoming. For example, if your customer wants a computer from the line you are selling with seven specific features, and you show her one that has six from her list and an extra feature she might value, perhaps you can still close the sale.

Do not ignore or mislead about the missing seventh feature. If she really must have it, then keep looking for a computer that meets all of her needs. Keep your focus on satisfying your customer and not just making a quick sale.

4. Admit mistakes early. Another way to reduce bad news from customers is to come forward as soon as a problem is discovered, even if the customer doesn't know about it yet (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/30/06, "Dealing with Sales Disasters"). Years ago, my husband bought a Lexus. A few months later, our local dealership contacted us to bring our car in for a new set of tires. It turns out that Lexus had improved the design of the tires from the original and they wanted us to have the new tires—at no charge for the tires or the installation. We don't know what was wrong with the first set of tires, but 15 years later we're still telling the story.

5. Finesse angry customers. Despite your best efforts, if you have customers who are unhappy and call you up to yell at you or storm into your office or store screaming, calmly listen to them until they have had their say. Do not interrupt them. Sometimes they just need to get it all out. If you are very lucky, they will realize they overreacted and end up apologizing.

It helps to write down exactly why they are frustrated using their words. When they start to calm down, show them what you wrote and ask them if you got it down correctly. Keep working until they agree that you understand the situation completely.

6. Know when to issue a mea culpa. After any mistake, real or perceived, when you open your mouth, begin with an apology. Do not add a "but" and your explanation. Just say something like, "Ms. Customer, I am so sorry your order was not ready for you on time and we caused you to be late in delivering your order to your customer. We know that you depended on us. Our reputation for accurate time estimates is important to us."

Then ask them how she would like you to handle the situation. If it is reasonable, agree to it. If it is not, see if you can get them to compromise. If they are completely unreasonable, suggest that they give you a day to think about it and offer to talk with them the next day. Perhaps they will calm down in the meantime.

7. Be proactive. Nip potential bad buzz in the bud. If you hear from one of your customers that another customer is upset, contact the unhappy customer right away. Say that you heard he was unhappy with his last order and you wanted to hear in his own words exactly how you fell short.

The key in dealing with bad news is not to inform folks that you want to "tell" them something; that sounds defensive, which is what they are expecting—and dreading. Rather, tell them you want to hear them; this is so unexpected and refreshing that they just might stop telling those in their network about your mistake.

Who knows? Properly handled, the customer may discover their unhappiness is partially their own fault. Now you have an opportunity to sell them a solution.

Let's face it, you can't please everyone all the time. Occasionally, you may have a customer who is entirely unreasonable and won't give you a way to fix the situation. Try really hard to please them—and then let it go. Learn to prevent it from occurring again and go sell the next customer (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/19/06, "The Case of the Reluctant Customer").

While it is true that a good buzz about your work will lead to more sales, do all you can to prevent unhappy customers, too, and your sales will soar. Happy selling!