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Customer Service: Strategies for Recovery

“I’m sorry, sir. You’re flight has been delayed.”

“Sir, we’re going to need to re-route you to get you to your final destination.”

“The plane you’re waiting on is stuck at Dulles. We’re not sure it will get here this evening.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Air Traffic Control has informed us that due to anticipated weather, we are going to be grounded for a while…maybe an hour or so. Nothing’s moving.”

Over the last three days, I have heard all of these statements (and a few others), which immediately started a chain reaction of increased blood pressure, frustration and at times, anger. Although all of these delays were weather-related, each one was received with disappointment. At the risk of sounding like a spoiled brat, I wanted what I wanted, which also happened to be what I had paid for. Anything short of that left me perturbed. The kicker was that my service provider – the airlines shuttling me from city to city – had no power over the deliverable either. Unfortunately for them, they still got to deal with my (and others’) frustration.

There will be times in business, when you are powerless, but you have customer staring you in the eyes or raising her voice at you over the phone telling you to fix the problem. Perhaps you have sub-contracted a service or you need a part that has been back-ordered. Maybe you didn’t order or manufacture enough product, or you underestimated staffing demands. Whatever the reason may be, it’s not acceptable in 2013 to throw your hands up in the air and scream, “I can’t do anything about that!” You chose to be in business, and customer service matters more now than ever. A great recovery plan may not fix the problem, but it may help you keep your customers.

So, as you restrain yourself and gain composure, here are three strategies for you to consider:

Communicate early and often. It is always better for a business to forewarn their customers of moments when they may be disappointed. Don’t wait to see if the customers notice. They will. Avoidance is NOT a good strategy. Own the problem and its resolution. Here’s what it might look like:

  • Give frequent updates.
  • Be willing to engage with customers in their scenario planning (e.g., “What’s the likelihood the part will arrive by Tuesday?”).
  • Be honest when an option is no longer on the table.
  • Brainstorm possible solutions.

Even if you don’t develop a winning “fix,” your customer will appreciate your assistance.

Make sure your customer feels seen, heard and valued. “Seen” can be easy, although seen might really look like “heard.” If you don’t see your clients in person, it’s reaching out to call them before they call you. It’s anything that makes your customer say, “They know I exist.” Tweets, emails, phone calls – whatever you do – can help you accomplish this.

Once your customer feels “seen,” the next step is making sure he/she feels “heard.” You can accomplish this by actually listening. I know. It’s simple, but few businesses do it. Here’s how you can accomplish it:

  • Use your active listening skills. This includes non-verbal communication (e.g., nodding your head in agreement, leaning forward, open body position, etc.) and well as verbal cues (e.g., “uh huh”)
  • Reflect your customer’s emotions. This may sound foolish, but when your customer identifies an emotion he/she is feeling, reflect that emotion back. Here’s what it sounds like: CUSTOMER: “I am frustrated with your lack of information.” YOU: “I understand that you’re frustrated we didn’t communicate more information.” When you reflect the emotion to your customer, he/she will probably demonstrate the behavior to a lesser degree. For example, if the client is angry, he/she won’t feel the need to continue to yell loudly in an attempt to convey the emotion. (Thanks, Kathy Ryan, for that insight!)
  • Follow up with some type of correspondence. Summarize what you discussed, as well as next steps and timelines. Taking the time to craft an email or send a personal note will solidify for your customer that you care.
  • It’s not enough for you to say you understand how your customer feels. If you follow that statement with “…but there’s nothing I can do,” the customer will likely dismiss your statements as BS. Although you don’t have to, be willing to give your customer something to ease the pain. 

    Recently, on a Southwest Airlines flight, when we were delayed 40 minutes because of weather, the flight attendants didn’t make a huge announcement, but gave people their first beverage for free. It was a small gesture, and probably cost the company very little, but it went a long way in making passengers feel as though they were still valued.

Be proactive. Add value. Don’t make your customer come to you. Go to him/her. The way businesses get customers is by providing value that a) saves time, b) saves money or c) improves quality for the customer. The way you will lose a customer is to do the opposite – waste the customer’s time or money OR lower his/her quality. You may not always have an opportunity to impact cost, but through your service, you can always add value to your customers.

The morale of this story is well known: A little bit of extra effort on your part will go a long way in maintaining customer relationships, lowering tension, and increasing loyalty.

What are your best strategies for recovering if/when you let your customers down?

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