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Your Unhappiest Customers Are Your Greatest Source of Learning

What do you think and feel when you read the statement in the headline above? Many thoughts come to my mind. Yes, I can kind of see the point here. But so what? I am busy with everything else going on with my company, my customers and my employees, and I have a million other things to focus on. I can tackle this thought after I deal with all of the items on my plate today. But, in truth, that day never seems to come. Sound familiar?

My name is John H. Beebe; I am Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Global eTelecom. I also am honored to serve as Vice Chairman of the Point of Sale Work Group for the National Automated Clearing House Association (NACHA) Electronic Check Council.

I have had the privilege of writing for The Green Sheet in a limited capacity before - I produced an "Electronic Check Conversion Factoid" by invitation of Paul Green. Many of you might have heard my name but have not had a chance to talk with me personally. Since I am actively involved with NACHA and some industry events coincide with official NACHA meetings, I am not able to attend every event.

In this monthly column, I hope to explore a wide range of topics that impact all of us and will determine the direction we are headed. You also can expect some in-depth and frank discussions about NACHA and how it affects you and your merchants, even if you only sell or provide credit card processing services. I will share how you and your organization can participate in shaping the future of our industry by giving voice to your thoughts, ideas and perspectives.

I also will share some of my background with you, which will help you understand my perspective. I expect this column to grow and mature as time passes, and your thoughts and feedback - positive or negative - would be greatly appreciated.

I want to thank Paul Green and the entire staff for the opportunity to be able to contribute to The Green Sheet again. I greatly admire all of the positive changes and in-depth features that have been added and The Green Sheet's continued evolution and maturation as a knowledgeable, trusted and accurate source of information on our industry.

I spent much time wondering what profound bit of wisdom I could provide in this article. I thought long and hard and had many ideas. However, none seemed to work. Something was missing. I then realized that the only true wisdom I am able to provide (profound or not) would come from my personal insights into the challenges that I have faced and how my company and I have responded to them. The Good. The Bad. Yes, even The Ugly.

Think back to the beginning of the article, when I asked you what came to your mind with the statement: "Your unhappiest customers are your greatest source of learning." Take a deep breath. Think about it again: "Your unhappiest customers are your greatest source of learning." What sense do you get when you think of your unhappy customers? Slow your mind and focus on that for a moment.

To many of us, there are different types of "unhappy customers." We all know the ones who are going to complain and be unhappy even if we give them everything for free. Right?

But what about the other types? The ones we can't so easily rationalize? Your bigger clients, perhaps a midsize client or profitable merchant that is difficult to deal with?

Think of the times you have gotten angry phone calls from top clients or merchants - they are on hold to speak with you or have left you an ominous message to return their call immediately. What do you feel now? It doesn't matter whether you are a sales agent, CEO, president, vice president, sales manager or any other position - we all are human. Maybe you are a sales agent in the field who has just set up and installed a large merchant, and you get the call that nothing is working right - leaving them at the busiest time of the day without payment processing capabilities.

Or you are a CEO who gets a threatening call from one of the nation's largest retailers, vehemently complaining and detailing a sickening lack of service and support from your company. It feels the same, no matter the size of the client or the scope of the situation.

Some of you may have a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach just thinking about it, while others may cringe a little from the visualization. A few of you may be tempted at this point to stop reading this article because this is unpleasant stuff, but I ask that you please bear with me. I hope you and I will become empowered and stronger in the process.

There is an old saying, "What a gift it would be to see ourselves as the world sees us." At this moment, this "unhappy" customer is providing you and me with just such a gift. Once we get past what the problem is and perhaps our emotional response to it - anger, pride, ego, even dread or fear - and look at it from a larger perspective, can we see the validity of what is being said?

Sometimes, what customers complain about is truly embarrassing. I have been astonished by some of the appalling errors we have made with our own customers, and it ultimately is a reflection on myself and other members of our company.

The natural human response is denial, to help make the situation more bearable in our minds. (Surely we did not do that; there is no way ... sound familiar?)

At times, I even have felt too ashamed and embarrassed to pick up the phone to deal with the situation. It would seem easier to just bury it and move on.

But it's critical to remember that this customer is teaching us something about our company and ourselves. What makes the difference is whether we choose to be afraid to look at "how deep the rabbit hole goes ..." or if we truly seek to deal with the root cause of the reason behind our customer's unhappiness. Your perspective on the situation is what will determine the outcome.

As difficult as it may be at the time, try to look at the situation as a blessing. Despite the outward appearances, this is a positive. The "unhappy" customer who will help refine you and your company and provide techniques to help you grow.

This is how life works, for we would not grow if we did not have challenges, problems or resistance. This is what defines who we are and makes us stronger even though we may not like the process that we have to go through to get there.

Remember, no company is perfect; everyone is in a constant state of change and growth. We are neither as good as our happiest customer says we are nor as bad as our unhappiest customer says we are. The real truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In business we are all dealt both "Good" and "Bad" cards. Try as we might, there is no way to get around it. Business success consists not in holding only "Good" cards but playing all of your cards well.

When challenges, problems and "unhappy" customers arise, don't be afraid. Alter your perspective to see the positive outcome that can result from even the darkest and worst situations. Hold that thought for a moment. Don't look and respond to the surface situation. See it as a positive.

Think again about that statement, "Your unhappiest customers are your greatest source of learning." Now what comes to mind?

John H. Beebe is co-founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Global eTelecom, a nationally recognized Electronic Check Conversion processor and technology solutions provider. John also serves as the Vice Chairman for the NACHA Electronic Check Council's Point of Sale Work Group and in 2001 was nominated for Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year award. You can reach John at

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