Service recovery, step by step

While no one wants to hear from irate customers, there’s something even worse: not hearing from them. Customer service expert Ruby Newell-Legner says 96 percent of customers don’t voice their complaints – and 91 percent of that group never come back.

The truth is, your interaction with dissatisfied customers represents an opportunity to either further damage relationships or make them even better. The difference is all in your approach. Here, then, is a reliable process that will improve your chances of recovering customers who have otherwise headed out the door.

1. Take a deep breath and avoid taking it personally. When customers are upset, there’s a good chance they aren’t mad at you. It’s likely you’re just on the receiving end of their anger about something your business did – or didn’t do. One of the simplest things you can do to defuse the situation is to remember that it’s not personal and remain calm.

2. Remember, you’re representing the brand. While it might seem contradictory, you also need to remember the customer’s relationship with your business is now in your hands, even if you were heretofore uninvolved in the problem. Whether it’s fair or not, you’re the embodiment of the brand, and everything you say or do will affect everyone associated with your company. In other words, have a sense of urgency.

3. Acknowledge the customer’s position. One of the first things a customer will look for is your level of compassion. Do you seem to care? While you don’t want to overpromise, a little empathy can go a long way. This doesn’t always require an apology, but an apology rarely hurts – as long as it’s genuine. If nothing else, say, “I understand why you’re upset and I’m going to do everything I can to help.”

4. If possible, look to begin repairing the relationship. Once you’ve set the tone, you should see a slight change in the customer’s demeanor. There may come a point where the person won’t be satisfied regardless of how much you try, but assume he is persuadable and willing to work with you unless you are proven otherwise.

5. Be objective; put yourself in the other person’s shoes. When we do the same work every day, we can lose touch with others’ perspectives. Things that seem obvious to us may be brand new to our customers. It’s critical, then, to remember their perspectives and address issues accordingly. In addition, try to understand intent. What does the customer want? What’s the priority? A seemingly complex issue often stems from one major concern.

6. Fix it if you can, take ownership and don’t overpromise. In a perfect world, the customer’s problem would be easy to fix. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case, and you’ll usually need to get others involved. Even when this occurs, however, don’t abdicate responsibility. State your intention to take ownership of the response. For example, you could give the customer your contact information and offer to be a resource if he doesn’t get answers.

7. In addition, consider any limits to your ability to solve the problem, provide accurate information and don’t overpromise in terms of a resolution. A right answer later is better than a wrong answer now, and bad news now is better than bad news that follows the promise of good news.

8. Agree on next steps and follow up in writing if possible. In the heat of the moment, next steps can be misunderstood. It’s good practice, then, to clearly restate what’s been resolved and, if possible, follow up with an email to put what you’ve agreed upon in writing. That will give the other person confidence that your business is accountable and give you a record of the discussion.

9. Say “thank you” and reinforce your commitment. As stated above, it’s important to remember the customer could have moved on without giving you a second chance. Acknowledge this with a simple thank you and reinforce your commitment to make good on the promises you’ve made. If you don’t own the solution, follow up to ensure that your company does what you said it would do. Even if you didn’t cause the problem, you now have a stake in how it’s resolved. If you can’t completely control what happens next, then, seek to influence it. Be a squeaky wheel within your company, albeit respectfully and tactfully, who puts customers first.

10. Identify and call attention to areas needing improvement. There are times when customer complaints represent trends, not anomalies. In other words, they highlight problems that need to be fixed. Beyond just addressing isolated concerns, therefore, consider whether there’s a root cause your company should address.

By taking this approach, you won’t eliminate complaints altogether, but you will, in the long run, have fewer of them. Most importantly, you’ll be much better positioned to ensure your existing customers not only stay with you, but become your biggest advocates in attracting even more business.

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