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Turning Conflicts into Opportunities

In a recent small claims case, a customer sued because a dry cleaner lost the pants from his custom-made suit. The jacket was of no use to him without the pants, and as a result he lost a valuable item. Even though the dry cleaner presumably made some effort to resolve the situation, communication broke down, and the parties both ended up spending precious time in Small Claims court. Why did this happen?

Every week, I see cases like these in Small Claims court. They are a waste of the consumer and the retailer's time and ultimately cost all of the parties more money than necessary. As a retailer or provider of services, your reputation and the good will you generate are instrumental in creating and maintaining business. And yet, all businesses experience conflicts with customers from time to time. The manner in which you handle them separates those operations with a loyal following from the businesses that appear repeatedly in court.

When a problem arises, the tendency of most people is to become defensive. No one likes to be accused of wrongdoing. However, in a business setting, a defensive response is shortsighted. Rather than objecting to the complaint, listen to your client. When people feel "heard," problems are more easily resolved. In fact, giving someone a chance to tell his or her story goes a long way towards resolving the dispute in many cases.

The next important step is to apologize. Even if you believe that you are in the right, you can still express regret that your client has had a problem. I am constantly amazed by the effect that an apology has on the "wronged" party. You, as the provider of the product or service, lose nothing by apologizing, but it generally carries a great deal of weight with the customer.

Ask your client how he or she would like to see the matter resolved. You might be surprised to find that his/her solution can be easily implemented. If the solution is impossible, offer another alternative, but explain your reasons for refusing. An explanation of your refusal, based on rational and preferably objective reasoning, along with a fair counter-offer on your part, may resolve the matter.

If your solution is not accepted, it is time to think about a compromise. Sellers must keep the big picture in mind. A small loss now will buy you good will and potential for more business in the future. Keep in mind that brainstorming and coming up with creative alternatives may result in additional business. A discount on future services, a free item to go along with something that is bought, etc. will be mutually beneficial.

As a final example of better business practice, my dry cleaner damaged two pairs of men's pants. The regional manager called me up, apologized, and asked what I would consider fair compensation. We agreed on a price, and he immediately sent me a check along with a coupon for a free suit cleaning. Needless to say, I was incredibly impressed by the high degree of service and attention to the problem. I am still a loyal customer.

Andrea Goldman, Esq.