By Shep Hyken

At a recent conference, I enjoyed an interview with a business owner who shared some of his customer service philosophies. His name is Jake, and he is a very smart guy. He taught several lessons that day, but the one that stood out was how he handles angry customers. Specifically, it was a lesson he called Don’t Smell the Milk. 

Early in Jake’s career, he worked at a grocery store. His manager taught him how to respond to a disgruntled customer. The example he used had to do with a customer who wanted to return a spoiled carton of milk.  

If a customer claims to have a carton of spoiled milk, the natural reaction would be for an employee to open the carton and “take a whiff of the milk.” As natural as that seems to be, your actions may send the message that you don’t trust your customer. You had to check to make sure the customer was telling the truth. Instead, Jake’s manager suggested taking the milk from the customer, no questions asked, and exchanging it for another carton. If you want to smell the milk, do it later. 

That made me think of an experience I had at a restaurant. I had been there many times before and was excited to order my favorite entrée. The meal arrived, and I took my first bite. The sauce didn’t taste right. The manager happened to stop by to see how we were enjoying our meal. I mentioned that the sauce had a funny taste, and – I promise I’m not making this up – he dipped his finger into the sauce on my plate, put it in his mouth to taste it, thought for a moment, and said, “There’s nothing wrong with the sauce.” 

Maybe there wasn’t anything “wrong” with the sauce, but to me, there was. Regardless, I’m a regular customer who had made just one negative comment after many visits, and this is how the manager handled it. Just like the spoiled milk example, the manager doubted my word. Furthermore, he chose to disagree with me. If you’ve been following my work, you know I don’t believe the customer is always right, but they are always the customer. This guy was interested in winning a debate about the sauce versus taking care of me. All he had to do was say something like, “I’m sorry. Is there something else I can get you?”  

Instead, I was stuck with food that didn’t taste good to begin with and now tasted like the manager’s dirty finger. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but who wants to eat food after witnessing an employee sticking his finger in it?  

The lesson is clear. Trust your customers. Don’t say things or take actions that question the integrity of your customers. If you want your customers to trust you, you must also trust your customers.