“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everyone in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”
Planning and organization will go a long way towards making certain that your customers' experiences with your business are consistently outstanding. But despite your commitment to 100 percent satisfaction, things will occasionally go wrong. People have bad days, people make mistakes, and communications break down. This being the case, you need a contingency plan that will kick into action when all else fails. You need a safety net to catch any unhappy customers that might fall through the cracks.
Regular mistakes can cause you to lose business, but the occasional honest mistake shouldn't drive your customers away. In fact, handled properly, a mistake can create an opportunity to show your customers just how much you care. The way your company deals with the things that go wrong often makes the difference between a loyal customer and an ex-customer.
To head customer problems off before they have a chance to grow, regularly initiate contact with recent customers to find out if they are still happy with their purchases. A quick phone call is often all it takes to draw some honest feedback out of people. Customer feedback forms are useful as well and people often feel more comfortable writing down their complaints than talking about them, but the response rate is typically smaller. Whatever you do, keep it as simple and easy for your customers as possible.
Begin your problem-solving process with the assumption that your customers are always right, from their perspective. This can be hard to do, but assuming that they are wrong will only make you appear condescending. This will get their backs up and they'll dig their heels in that much harder. Your goal is to diffuse the situation, not inflame it, and the only way to do this is by trying to understand your customers' point of view. Your customers believe they are right, so start there and work towards a solution.
Ninety-six percent of unhappy customers never complain, but 90 percent of those who are dissatisfied will not buy the product again. Each unhappy customer will tell his or her story to at least nine other people. That's why it is always the best policy to take a proactive approach by immediately correcting any mistakes that you catch, rather than letting the little ones slide. When you admit your mistakes and commit your resources to resolving them, your customers will respect and appreciate your honesty and integrity. But if your customers ever suspect that you have tried to pull the wool over their eyes, not only will they be upset, they will tell everyone they know, with the possible exception of you. In business, as in life, honesty really is the best policy.
To do this, apologize and empathize with your customer's anguish. Saying you are sorry doesn't necessarily mean that you admit you made a mistake. If you are in the wrong, quickly admit your mistakes and begin the process of repairing any damaged trust, but if your customer is in the wrong, don't go to the ends of the earth to prove it to them. Instead, try saying something like; “I'm sorry this happened to you, I'd feel exactly the same way if I were in your shoes. What can we do to make it right?” This kind of acknowledgement is often all that people want when they complain.
In the end, it is unimportant who is wrong, and besides, proving to your customers that they are wrong only embarrasses them. It doesn't encourage them to do more business with you and it certainly doesn't encourage them to let you know the next time they have a problem. Complaining is uncomfortable for most people so make it as easy on them as possible.
Focus on problem solving rather than on blame. Take your customer on a search for the solution to their problem. Take the attitude that every problem has a solution, and you will not give up until you find it. Think of solving your customer's problem as a joint mission, not a competition.
Imagine you are seated in a restaurant, waiting for your server to take your order. The restaurant is fairly busy, and your server is moving from table to table fairly quickly in an effort to keep up. At first you are sympathetic, but as time goes on it seems that everyone is being served but you. Even the people who were seated after you seem to have been helped. The longer you wait, the more frustrated you get. What kind of mood will you be in when the server finally comes to take your order? What will you tell your friends about this restaurant? Now imagine that when your server shows up, he brings you an appetizer and says something like “I'm terribly sorry for keeping you waiting so long, we are not usually so busy this time of day. Please accept this complimentary appetizer as my apology.” Now what kind of mood are you in? What will you tell your friends about this restaurant now?
Keep your customers informed. When you've got bad news, it is always better to let your customers know in advance, rather than let them find out on their own. They may still be upset, but the after-effects will be much less damaging. Letting your customer know that their order is delayed but that you will personally drop it off the moment it is ready, for example, will cause much less damage to your customer relations than simply letting it arrive late and apologizing for it later.
Solve the problem by offering a fair resolution. One way to do this is to ask your customers what they feel would be fair. Given the choice, most customers will respond with a fair and reasonable request. Acting on your customers' resolutions goes a long way towards re-establishing trust.
When your customer feels injured in some way as a result of their complaint, sometimes it is appropriate to try to mend the relationship by offering something that is of value to them. A free desert or appetizer at a restaurant is a good example, but the concept can be applied to any industry. Set some parameters and empower your people to follow through. You don't need to give away the store. In most cases the atonement doesn't need to be overly substantial in order to have a positive impact. Showing your customers that you care is often more important than the amount you spend.
Customers with legitimate complaints are your best source of information about your company. They let you see your most pressing problems, up close and personal. Remember, most customers who are unhappy with your business don't complain. They simply don't come back. You are then left with the less than satisfactory method of guessing what went wrong. Luckily, complainers are willing to let you know right up front. It is amazing how many companies hire consultants to tell them what they would already know if they had only listened to their customers in the first place.
There are two basic types of customer service situations… recurring situations and random situations.
Recurring situations happen regularly, and as such can be managed through systems and policies. Activities such as providing your customers with free training or answering frequently asked questions, for example, can be handled by following your customer service systems.
Random situations, on the other hand, are too unpredictable to fully plan for, and as such must be managed on a case-by-case basis. This doesn't mean they can't be solved through systems, but it does mean that the appropriate flexibility must be built in. To confidently handle your random customer service situations, consider the following…
Customer Service training — Teach your employees basic customer relations skills and they will be better prepared to handle whatever comes their way. One of the best ways to do this is through role-playing with specific examples. Explore the various methods of handling complaints and their possible results. By encouraging your employees to problem solve “on their feet,” they will be better prepared to properly handle unhappy customers of all kinds.
Empowered employees — Customers never like to wait, especially when they are upset about something. Give your employees the authority to make decisions on the spot and they will be better able to take care of your customers' concerns without delay. For more on how to safely and confidently empower your employees, review the work you did in the Management with Circles of Authority.
Corporate Values — An understanding of your basic business values gives everyone on your staff a place to start when faced with a controversial decision. Make sure that everyone knows, understands, and behaves in accordance with your Corporate Values.
Who responds to customer complaints in your company?