If your company is like most you have problems with customer service.  Those problems may emanate from poor products, over-sold capabilities or legitimately bad service itself. Despite our efforts to get service right we all inevitably have problems.  It makes sense to plan what to do when things look darkest.

  • Apologize – Start with thank you.  It changes the tone of the conversation.  Be brief and to the point.  You’ve already messed up… and the customer knows it.  Nonetheless, and honest thank you followed by an honest apology is the beginning. A Complaint is a Gift is a good book to help change your point of view.
  • Use Empathy, Not Sympathy – I see this mistake a lot. People have been trained to be sympathetic when a customer complains to understand their pain. (And it sure beats the alternative of being uncaring!) People servicing customers view the issue as “the other guy’s” problem. A more appropriate reaction would be empathy because, in fact, you own it too.  The difference is in sympathy you take the point of view that “I feel bad for you” whereas in empathy the point of view is “I feel bad with you.”  Conveying this sense that you share their pain makes you collaborators in the solution and this translates to better support.  Anthony Tjan mentions empathy as an advantage for small companies, but there is no reason a large company can’t deliver the goods too.
  • Communicate – If the problem will take some time to resolve, gather the necessary information, let the customer go – then get busy.  It’s important to over-communicate time lines and actions.  At my company we have a mantra we live by – under promise and over deliver.  Be better than your commitment!  This is a good time to ask your customer which way to rectify a problem – that is, of several options, does one work better for them?
  • Follow-Up – Eventually, they will want to know what you’re going to do about it. Depending on the severity of the problem/complaint, the customer may have several stages of emotion to pass through. Even if your customer called to vent, they still expect you to do something.  And in the previous step you said what you would do and when.  Make it happen.
  • Surprise Your Customer – Disney presents the model for recovery. Kids invariably get separated from their parents at Disney resorts.  These events make a BIG impression on parents and children alike.  When parent and child are reunited, the child is invited to lead the parade down Main Street.  Disney turns getting lost, which is traumatic, into a memorable event.

Think about it, if your company makes a mistake and you can recover so well that the customer speaks only about what you did to make things more than right, you’ll have a customer for life – and an advocate who will sing your praises.

The pivot point is that customers are willing to accept honest mistakes provided you take a common sense approach to resolving their issue.  But let’s face it, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat you have to actively transform common sense into common practice.

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  • http://pivotpointsolutions.net Andrew McFarland

    Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School adds a fresh perspective at http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/kanter/2009/11/promises-you-should-never-beli.html.

  • Jeremy Hunter

    Just a pointer, to ‘share’ pain is sympathy, empathy is when you have to imagine it. Sym being akin to syn- meaning alike, similar, like synthetic.

    The difference is in sympathy you take the point of view that “I feel bad for you” whereas in empathy the point of view is “I feel bad with you.”

    You got these the wrong way round. Other than that, good points! A company can achieve more when it accepts that its size makes it more capable of mistakes, not immune to making them by mere power.

    • http://pivotpointsolutions.net Andrew McFarland

      Thanks for the comment Jeremy. I like your thought about capability vs. immunity! Some companies give the impression that “might makes right” and treat consumers poorly. Customers can (and should) vote with their wallets… in essence the only way to fight back.

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  • http://www.peoplemetrics.com/ janessa lantz

    The example of the Disney parade perfectly illustrates the value of understanding how an experience makes your customer FEEL. Contrast this type of problem handling with the shoulder shrugging attitude of the United Airlines lost child incident. Disney knows these things will happen and then they put a plan into place on how they will handle it. Very few companies are this proactive and good problem resolution will make or break customer loyalty. Great post.

    • http://pivotpointsolutions.net/ andy_mcf

      Thanks for adding another dimension to the post! You point out an interesting angle, namely that Disney _ anticipates_ problems and makes plans to address. United Airlines is also smart enough to anticipate problems… but their lack of planning (and subsequent employee training) leaves the outcome up in the air. (Bad pun intended.)

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