The day before I was going to ride a 105-mile gran fondo my bike broke. First I freaked: The route included four mountains and over 11,000 feet of climbing, I had been training for, oh, forever... and now this? So I hustled down to my local bike shop.
"Can you fix it?" I pleaded.
"Sure," the mechanic replied. "When do you need it?"
"Tomorrow!" I said.
His eyes narrowed. "Hmm. Let me look at our schedule." As he walked to a computer he said, "Why do you need it tomorrow?"
"I'm riding an event tomorrow," I said. "I could ride my other bike but between all the climbing and the gravel roads I'd really rather not."
"No doubt," he said. "You definitely need something light but also with a little give." Then he looked up from the computer. "I'm sorry, but we can't get it done today."
"But," he quickly continued, "We have a Domane we're using for test rides, and it's the right frame size for you. It's super light but is also designed for endurance and comfort. You could rent it for the day if you want."
And I did. Problem solved. I didn't get what I thought I wanted--but I did get what I came for. The mechanic used a process Matthew Dixon, co-author of "The Effortless Experience," terms, "Just because there's nothing you can do doesn't mean there's nothing you can do."
Here's how he describes the process:
1. Don't be so fast with a "no."
The key to making an alternative suggestion work for a customer is to avoid immediately sharing what is not available. Take a little time, since the customer has no idea how long it actually takes to process their request. Use that time to focus on the customer's actual interests, not just their stated request. Try to determine what's really going on, and how flexible they might be.
In my case, the mechanic probably knew right away he couldn't fix my bike in a day. Instead of saying so, though, he asked a few questions to find out what alternatives he might be able to suggest.
My request was, "Fix my bike today." My real need was, "I have to have the right bike for tomorrow's ride."
2. Don't try to explain your way out of a high-effort situation.
According to Dixon, the average rep at the average company wastes way too much of a customer's time and mental energy explaining why the customer can't have what they want. While doing so might seem logical, typically it comes across to the customer as defensive or combative: "All you're doing is justifying why your company can't give me what I want. How does that help me?"
And, as Dixon says, in customer service if you're defending, you're losing.
The mechanic didn't tell me why he couldn't fix the bike. He didn't talk about a backlog of work or needing to order parts. He told me he couldn't and quickly moved on to finding solutions.
3. Don't take the customer's request quite so literally.
In many cases, the service a customer requests and their actual issue may be very different. When you understand the full context, a different need may emerge.
I needed the right bike for a specific ride I had made a huge physical and emotional investment in. All I could think was, "I need my bike fixed!" I was too frantic to consider that it didn't have to be my bike, but the mechanic did because he didn't take my request literally.
Will this approach always work? Of course not, but the percentage of situations when alternative positioning could work definitely makes it worth trying--if you give your employees the latitude (and training) to address customer issues, that is. To make it work, you must allow your employees to tailor the resolution to the customer and the needs and outcomes that individual hopes to receive.
In my case, the "Just because there's nothing you can do doesn't mean there's nothing you can do" approach succeeded on multiple levels: One, I got a great bike for the ride and two, I liked it so much I later bought one.
Final note: Customer service books are often really boring. "Effortless Experience" is really good and describes a number of practical ways you can improve customer touch points, experiences, and service. Definitely worth a read.