How to handle a sticky customer situation with care

by Sue Marquette Poremba

Sometimes bad things happen. It can be a relatively minor thing, like a store clerk forgetting to include a purchased item in a customer’s bag. Or it can be a problem that affects thousands of lives, like the theft of medical records from a doctor’s office.

How a business reacts to a crisis can be the difference between keeping customers happy and losing them–and their referrals–for good. Here are some tips to help you handle your next customer crisis.

Keep customers informed. The employees at Newark, N.J.-based BookSwim.com call it the Great Shelf Collapse of 2008. The paperback rental company stored books in an old warehouse that had no air-conditioning. On a hot summer day, the plastic bookshelves melted, bringing 20,000 books crashing to the floor in an unorganized mess. Within hours, e-mail notices–complete with photos of the mess–were sent to every customer, alerting them of the situation.

“Not all of our customers would have been affected by the crash, but we wanted everyone to know before it became a problem they discovered on their own,” explains customer service representative Chip O’Brien. “When they’re aware of the problem in advance, it makes them feel as if they’re involved in the company, rather than feel swindled and cheated when we failed to send their books.”

Admit when the mistake is yours. Robert Greenfest still remembers the mistake he made years ago when he owned a residential mortgage firm. He was working with a young couple buying their first home and locked their interest rate in for a 5/1 mortgage with a 5 percent down payment. “Everything was approved, and the day before settlement the lender called to tell me I had made a mistake,” says Greenfest, today a principal with Santos, Postal & Company, a 35-person accounting firm in Rockville, Md.

The customers did not have any more capital to put down, and if they did not close the next day, they would have been in default of the contract. “The mistake was mine, and I decided to purchase their loan, out-of-pocket, for $1,600,” Greenfest says. “In my mind, it was the right thing to do.”

Empower your employees. When an angry customer walks into your business, chances are, you aren’t the one dealing with the problem. Your employees on the front lines–those answering the phone and standing at the cash register–are the first ones dissatisfied customers encounter. That’s why your employees need the tools, information and training that can help them diffuse heated situations on the spot, Greenfest says.

If your employees run to grab a manager every time an angry customer walks in the door, your patrons might think your staff doesn’t have a handle on company policies. Brief your workers on the proper procedure for handling all kinds of disputes, from simple pricing disagreements to major slip-ups that could cause you to lose multiple customers.

Validate what the customer is feeling. “Sometimes, the customer simply wants to be heard,” says Julie Murphy Casserly, founder and owner of JMC Wealth Management in Chicago. The customer has a right to be angry or upset if a business transaction goes wrong, and while the business owner may not be able to correct the problem, recognizing these feelings goes a long way to smoothing customer relations.

There will be times when a sticky problem can be easily corrected, and times when it cannot. But owners who take the time to explain the problem will be the ones whose customers are willing to give them a second chance.

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