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If I asked you what the biggest constant in business was, you'd probably tell me “change.” It’s a great response, but here’s something that will never change – your company and employees will occasionally make mistakes.

Leaders often have a hard time chewing over the inevitability of mistakes. But they happen. All the time. You'll hire the wrong person for a position. You'll inaccurately budget for a project. You'll choose the wrong idea to focus on and hinder yourself from meeting one of your goals for the year. And sometimes, you're going to upset your customers.

Customer service is arguably one of the most intimidating parts of running a business. You want to make your customers happy all of the time, but that's just not going to happen. It's not the mistakes that matter, but how you choose to respond to them.

Nothing impacts a brand's reputation more than how they address their unhappy customers. If you think Amazon and Nordstrom became industry success stories on the back of their products alone, then you haven't done your research. Part of their prosperity is a result of their customer service efforts. During board meetings, Jeff Bezos leaves an empty seat at the conference table and tells executives to imagine it's occupied by one of their customers because they should be the most important person in the room. And Nordstrom's customers are the star of their employee handbook.

When it comes to your customer service efforts, the devil is in the details. And now that social media gives customers a larger platform to voice their complaints, it's critical that you quickly and appropriately remedy any negative experiences or comments they have. It's time that leaders stop viewing disappointed customers as a burden. They aren't the problem, they're an opportunity for growth, you just have to be willing to listen and respond.

How can you turn unhappy customers into a valuable resource? Below are some strategies that have become an integral part of my company's customer service efforts.

Admit to Your Customers When You Mess Up

There is no room for ego in the world of customer service. If you make a mistake, you have to take responsibility for it in order to rectify the issue. Deflecting, vaguely skirting around the issue, or ignoring it completely will only fan the flames that will eventually burn your brand's reputation to the ground. 

How you respond to a customer complaint will always depend on the unique situation, but there are a few things that every reply should entail. First, a genuine apology. Without this, the rest of your response will mean nothing. Next, an explanation of what went wrong that shows empathy for the customer. And, whenever possible, your responses should include and end with steps you will take to ensure you don't make the same mistake again in the future. Finally, thank the customer for taking the time to bring the issue to your attention, as it helps you serve all of your customers better, and acknowledge that you are grateful for their business.

Keep in mind that every word of your reply will be scrutinized by past, present, and future customers of your brand. If you sound defensive, disingenuous, or angry, your customers will have no problem calling attention to your brand in front of everyone.

Do What it Takes to Satisfy Your Unhappy Customers

There are some mistakes that can't be fixed, but there will always be a way to make it up to the customer. Going out of your way to accommodate a customer's needs will go a long way in turning a disgruntled customer into one of your most loyal advocates. 

Here’s a great example of going “above and beyond” in customer service. We have a long-time client who was furious that we had shipped an order to a P.O. Box that was no longer associated with her. Our customer service associate rectified that problem immediately, but was troubled that the client said this had happened several times (and not just when she ordered from our company). After the call was over, our associate decided to do some research on her own, and figured out that the client’s credit card company must still have the old P.O. Box listed online as a valid address, and it was “auto-populating” in address fields when she orders from different websites.

She called the client to share her theory, and lo and behold, that was indeed the problem. The client was over-the-moon happy with us, and couldn’t believe how we went the extra mile to solve a nagging problem she’d been struggling with for months. The client went from furious to writing one of the most glowing reviews we’ve ever had online. A total customer service homerun!

Plus, think about how many times she’s telling this story about our company in conversation.  I’m not sure you could buy such powerful word-of-mouth advertising.  

Find Customer Complaints Before They Find You

One of the best ways to respond to a customer service mistake is to find them before they make their way onto social media, Google, Yelp, or any other digital platform. Once a customer shares their negative experience online, there's no way to take it back. While you can respond to their complaints, it would be even more advantageous for your brand to attempt to resolve an issue one-on-one, rather than in the public spotlight.

An easy way to do this is to make your phone number and email address easy to find, or to have a separate contact form on your website. Customers will likely contact you via these platforms if they are unhappy about their experience before turning to other outlets. You can also send post-purchase surveys to customers and have them rank their experiences that way.  If a customer shares any negative feedback, you can reach out and address their concerns immediately after receiving the results of their survey back. This not only shows you are proactive about your customer service, but you will also learn a lot about your products and services this way, good and bad. Use this insight to continue improving your business.

Your customers will eventually forget about the mistakes you made. What they will remember, however, is how you responded to them.

About the Author(s)

Carl Pradelli Headshot

Carl Pradelli is Cofounder and CEO of NatureCity, a Florida-based nutritional supplement company that focuses only on scientifically-backed ingredients.

Cofounder and CEO, NatureCity
Customer in a Coffee Shop