Setting Limits With Challenging Customers

Turn client confrontations into win-win situations by listening, empathizing and setting boundaries.

If you've followed this column since January, you've read about how savvy managers increase efficiency and avoid burnout by establishing work-related boundaries for themselves and their stuff.

This final article in a series of five provides practical solutions for creating boundaries with three common categories of customers. When you skillfully reign in your most challenging and picky patrons, you boost productivity and strengthen customer ties. Here’s how to do it.

Scenario 1: The Never- Satisfied Member

Carol faithfully works out at your facility every week. Unfortunately, it seems as if she has a new complaint nearly as often! If the problem isn’t the temperature in the weight room or the apparently unclean restroom, it’s that the step classes are too crowded. You find it difficult enough that Carol gripes so much, but to make matters worse, her beefs are typically long-winded, leaving you feeling cornered and worried about wasting time. Your instinct when you see Carol coming is to duck into your office and shut the door.

Solutions for Setting Boundaries. It’s tempting to simply avoid chronic criticizers like Carol, especially since their grievances can be nitpicky or just plain unrealistic. But the way you respond to these members bears on your success as a manager, says Rhonda Abrams, a small-business consultant in Palo Alto, California, and author of The Successful Business Organizer. “People crave attention,” she says. “They want—and need—to be heard.”

When you dart away from difficult patrons, you risk building barriers to communication, which breeds resentment and may fuel even more complaints as those customers struggle to get your attention. “There’s a certain degree of hearing complaints that’s part of your job as manager,” Abrams notes.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you must drop everything to endure recurrent and drawn-out critiques from your facility’s most disapproving members. While you probably attend to the average customer’s grievances right away, appeasing persistently irked customers calls for a different approach. You must be attentive to all customers without allowing certain ones to unduly infringe on your time.

Take Control. One way to establish boundaries is to turn an encounter with an always-disgruntled customer into a professional meeting, where you set the terms. Communicate to the client that you recognize her frustration and that you are available and willing to hear more about it—but not necessarily on the spot. For example, Abrams suggests you say, “Sounds like you have a number of concerns about the facility. I’m interested to hear more from you, but I am busy with another task at the moment. Let me get my appointment book so I can schedule a half-hour meeting with you. This way, I will really be able to hear what you have to say.”

Approaching the never-satisfied customer in this way lets her know you intend to hear her out while still conveying the message that it’s not okay to corner you whenever she feels like sounding off.

Once in the scheduled meeting, you can establish further boundaries by asking the customer to prioritize her concerns from the most pressing to the least, says Vickie Lang, regional group exercise manager of the Central California division for 24 Hour Fitness. “Chances are,” she says, “if you acknowledge and commit to resolving the primary concern, the others will become irrelevant.” For more advice on responding to a difficult customer, see the sidebars on pages 22 and 23.

Scenario 2: The Picky Participant

Joanne attends group exercise classes daily and has a reputation for being fussy about instructors (and very vocal when she doesn’t like one). When you assign a new teacher to an evening kickboxing class, Joanne calls to inform you that this instructor is “terrible.” She adds that many others share her feelings. You worry that perhaps you made a mistake in hiring this instructor and consider pulling him from the class.

Solutions for Setting Boundaries. Some program directors panic when a discerning participant grumbles about an instructor, especially when she claims there’s an angry mob who agrees with her. However, just because an instructor is the object of negative feedback doesn’t mean he’s not qualified to teach the class in question.

It’s crucial to set very clear boundaries when dealing with tough critics like Joanne, who may harass instructors as a means to wield control over the group exercise department and even you—the program director. “The way some people feel they have an effect in the world is through criticism,” Abrams notes. Your job is to separate the legitimate beefs from the bullying.

Back Your Staff First. If you side with a disgruntled participant and second guess your staffing decisions before you know all the facts, you haven’t created appropriate boundaries. “It’s important that your staff know you’ll stand behind them when a member complains,” says Abrams. “If you are too quick to take a member’s criticism and turn it around on your staff, you’ll lose their trust.”

In order to successfully walk the line between supporting staff and adequately addressing member dissatisfaction, Abrams suggests responding to complaints about an instructor by saying something like: “I’m always interested in hearing how we can make the classes satisfactory for you, so please tell me your specific concerns.”

Hone In on the Problem. After carefully listening to the grievance, you may discover that the problem lies with the level of the class, the music or the format more than the instructor himself. For example, according to Abrams, if the only time a participant can come is, say, 6:00 pm, she may use criticism as a way to say, “I want a class that suits me at 6:00 pm.” One method to resolve the problem, suggests Lang, is to introduce the participant to alternatives during that same time slot, such as a personal training session or classes on other days of the week.

Another solution is to evaluate the instructor in question yourself, as well as casually poll a variety of other group exercise participants. Do they enjoy workouts taught by this instructor? Is the feedback you hear mostly positive or negative?

Scenario 3: The Favor Seeker

Burt is a longtime member at the facility you manage. You have developed a friendly rapport over the years and enjoy chatting and joking with him whenever he drops in for a workout. Lately, however, Burt has started expecting special favors not granted to other members, such as paying his club fees late or running a tab in the pro shop. You are uncomfortable with this favoritism and deliberate over how to end it without damaging the cordial customer-manager relationship.

Solutions for Setting Boundaries. “When you apply special favors to one customer and not another, you cross a boundary,” Abrams notes. News travels fast in fitness facilities, so if you bend the rules for one or two members, others will likely learn about it and expect the same service. “Once the word gets out, it’ll be open season for everyone to want favors,” says Abrams.

Luckily, you can easily show customers you’re grateful for their busness without resorting to special treatment. For instance, hold a monthly customer appreciation drawing in which members enter to win special discounts, services or gifts. “This allows you to express your appreciation to customers without running the risk of anyone perceiving it as favoritism,” Abrams says.

If a customer like Burt presses for special favors and you’re worried that turning him down could strain your relationship, try communicating your thoughts in this way: “Burt, I’d love to let you run a tab in our pro shop because you are such a valuable customer. But in order to make it fair for everyone, I have to follow the company’s guidelines, which don’t allow me to do that for anyone. What about entering our customer appreciation drawing? You definitely deserve to win!”

Beyond the Boundaries

Once you learn to tactfully set limits with demanding members, you are in a good position to strengthen your ongoing relationships with all customers. Says Abrams, “When you act with integrity—by avoiding favoritism and actually listening to complaints— customers will respect you in the long term, even if they don’t get what they want in the short term.”

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Amanda Vogel, MA

IDEA Author/Presenter
Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and co... more less
October 2003

© 2003 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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