It was a Ladies' Day like any other at Keller Golf Course in St. Paul, Minn. Players shuttled from hole to hole enjoying the day while employees went about the work of keeping the course in shape. Things changed when a golfer teed off and sent her ball flying straight at a spray rig, where it stopped short of a greenside bunker.
The golfer was furious by the interference and let the spray technician know about it. The course employee got defensive. He picked up the ball and threw it into the bunker saying, “That's where it would have ended up!”
“Needless to say, he wrote a letter of apology to the member,” says Keller's superintendent, Paul Diegnau, CGCS. “All was forgiven.” The golfer continues to play at Keller.
Like many golf courses, Keller does not have written rules on dealing with angry golfers. National groups, such as the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), do encourage the course to create its own policies and training procedures.
“It is really up to each facility as to how they want their staff to interact with the golfers,” says Jeff Bollig, GCSAA's director of communications. “I'm sure every course has a policy of how they deal with golfers, like any other business. I would say it would be wise.”
PAY IT FORWARD
An angry customer is more than just an annoyance; he or she can also cost you money. An unhappy customer could tell as many as 20 people about the experience.
“We don't want the customer to leave in a negative mood,” says Gene Fleming, director of golf at Herndon Centennial Golf Course, Herndon, Va. “If he leaves upset, he's the worst advertisement you can get, whether he is right or wrong.”
On the flip side, studies show that 70 percent of those angry folks will become repeat customers if they feel their problem is resolved, and 95 percent will golf again if the issue is resolved immediately.
Start thinking of complainers as blessings in disguise. As many as 90 percent of customers who believe they have been wronged never complain; they just take their business elsewhere. An angry golfer who tells you about his problem hasn't yet decided to take his business to the competition. That is a customer worth saving.
“Golfers are not the enemy, they are your customer,” says Chicago Golf Club's superintendent, Jon Jennings, CGSA.
Golfers lose their cool for many reasons — from course conditions or maintenance procedures to cup placement and slow-play issues. Another common trigger is alcohol.
“At the first golf course I worked, it was somewhat common for a golfer to be removed from the course by the sheriff. Usually, in such instances, alcohol was involved,” Diegnau says. “The majority of irate golfer instances stem from the use of alcohol.”
With or without alcohol, it is wise to have policies and procedures in place to help employees deal with angry golfers. The smartest first step is prevention. Try to plan maintenance before or after hours or during slow times. When there are unavoidable interferences, communicate those in advance to golfers.
“Have the golf shop tell golfers to be prepared for possible interferences. People don't like surprises,” Jennings says. “If you've communicated well, you usually don't have any problems.”
Likewise, warn employees about causing interferences. Sometimes they are unavoidable, like the mower at Alvamar Golf and Country Club, Lawrence, Kan., who got in the way of a group nine times in one day. That situation led to a refund.
Other times, interferences are unavoidable or accidental. Work with employees to prepare for these times. The maintenance person at Herndon Centennial keeps extra golf balls on him at all times. If he runs over a golfer's ball when he's mowing the rough, he can diffuse the situation by giving the golfer a new ball and an apology.
An ounce of prevention can go a long way, but not always far enough. Golfers will get angry; therefore you and your staff need to be prepared to handle it. The first decision to make is who will deal with the irate customer. Some managers want to handle these situations themselves, while others choose to empower their employees to tackle tough situations.
“We train everybody and we try to involve everyone in our decision-making process,” Fleming says. “The manager may be tied up on another project or in a meeting and our goal is to have the individual leave here happy, so we try to empower the employees to solve the situation as best as possible. If the employee can't, there is always a supervisor there who can.”
If customer complaints are management's domain, teach employees how to quickly and politely redirect angry golfers to a supervisor. This arrangement works especially well in instances when the employee is the reason for the complaint.
“Our employees may not have a thorough understanding of why they are doing something,” Jennings says. “If I have them mow the front nine fairways, they may not have an understanding of why and can't explain it as well as I can.”
Jennings asks his employees to listen carefully to customer complaints and then to immediately discuss the situation with a manager, who has the authority to make sure the problem gets resolved.
STICK WITH THE PROGRAM
Managers who allow employees to handle sticky situations need to be sure everyone follows the same ground rules.
Rule #1: The best defense is to never be defensive
When an angry, belligerent golfer storms up to an employee, it's easy for both parties to lose control. But it is critical that the employee resists the urge to get involved in a back-and-forth conversation with the customer. That will only serve to amp up emotions and make the situation worse.
“It's like an arms race; you don't want to escalate the situation,” Jennings says. “If someone is yelling and you yell back, you just make things worse. But if you say something with sincerity and you mean it, you will have that person go away feeling better.”
Rule #2: Keep your mouth shut and your ears open
Instead of defending oneself or trying to explain away a problem, an employee should remain calm and simply listen to the customer's concerns.
“The number-one mistake people make is that they don't listen to the complaint,” Fleming says. “You need to listen, whether you agree with the customer or not, and don't argue back. If you don't listen or keep a positive attitude, you won't get that customer to cooperate with you and you are in a losing situation.”
Listening well can also help identify a customer with a valid complaint vs. those who hope to scam the facility out of a free round or who are just habitual whiners.
“My membership is comprised of 99.5 percent great and respectful people, and 0.5 percent complainers,” says Jack MacKenzie, superintendent of North Oaks Golf Club, North Oaks, Minn. “It is my job to treat each of them with respect. It is my challenge to discern the real member concerns from the perceived member concerns.”
Rule #3: Apologize, apologize and then apologize again
The customer is always right. Unless the golfer resorts to violence, which is pretty rare at most courses, the employee's job is to “yes them to death,” says Dick Stuntz, vice president of golf course facilities at Alvamar Golf and Country Club.
When the golfer has finished rattling off his or her list of complaints, it's time to apologize — even if the customer is clearly wrong. Sometimes a sincere apology is enough to rectify the situation.
“We try to be strategic in our approach,” Stuntz says. “An apology confirms that we are trying to do the right thing and normally the reception from that person is quite positive. I want them to feel good about Alvamar when they leave. They need to know that we care.”
Rule #4: Make promises you can keep
There are times when an apology isn't enough, either because of the severity of the situation or the sensitivities of the customer. In these cases, promises may need to be made. Whether a refund or a procedural change, few employees have the ability to make these types of decisions so these rare cases are usually best left to managers.
“They want to be heard by someone who can make a difference,” Stuntz says. “If you pledge to them to make a change, that's about as satisfying to them as you can get most of the time.”
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Whatever your policy, be sure to train employees well. It is wise to put your policy in writing, such as in an employee manual or customer service guide, and then go over the rules with the entire staff at the start of each new season and one-on-one with new hires.
“Customers can be demanding,” Fleming says. “We are upfront with our employees and try to educate them on diffusing the situation. A manual is something they can refer to for guidance.”
Even with thorough training and frequent reminders of policy, there will be times when employees forget the rules. Prepare managers for how they should react when these situations come up.
“We try to train the best we can,” Jennings says. “It's like raising kids. You train them as best you can and then hope they do the right thing when the time comes.”
Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer who resides in Des Moines, lowa.
6 WAYS TO CALM A CRANKY GOLFER
Dina Beach Lynch, a workplace strategist and conflict coach (www.workwelltogether.com) offers six simple strategies for dealing with an irate golfer.
- Realize it's not an attack on you.
Give the golfer the benefit of the doubt when it comes to bad behavior. More often than not, he or she is angry at the conditions, not the worker. Breathe deep and smile. It can work wonders.
- Put yourself in the golfer's shoes.
Follow the Golden Rule — treat your customers as you would want to be treated in the same situation. Be polite, respectful and calm.
- Acknowledge the golfer's concerns and feelings.
Listen to what your customer has to say, even if he is venting about things outside your control. A phrase like “I can see you're upset and I want to help” will smooth the way to resolution. Be authentic, not patronizing.
- Ask questions to generate solutions.
Begin solving the problem by asking your customer what is his most urgent concern. Questions like “What would you like to see happen?” and “How can I help fix this?” will get to the heart of the matter.
- Set expectations for the future.
Take the information gained from these questions and make things right. Going above and beyond will ensure that the golfer won't forget it or the course.
- Follow up.
Check in with the golfer later to be sure that he or she is satisfied with the resolution. A small gesture, such as a handwritten note or an e-mail, can have a lot of impact on customer loyalty.
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