Unhappy Customers: 3 Rules for Resolving Conflict

Date: November 05, 2013

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Let's face it: you’ll eventually have to deal with unhappy customers. And yes, it's disheartening, especially when you know that you or your staff dropped the ball.

So shift your focus away from the customer's tongue-lashing, divert your attention from the perceived failures, and realize that a complaint is a golden opportunity.

When you do that, unhappy customers suddenly become much needed allies.

Isn't This Just Common Sense?

Yes, it is. But here's the thing: just like a good sports team, sometimes you and your employees need a reminder of the basics to remain sharp and ready for success. (And practice makes perfect, right?)

Here are 3 fundamental rules for turning unhappy customers into long-term advocates for your business:

Rule #1: No excuses.

While no one wants to do anything that makes unhappy customers, what really matters is what you do next.  Even if the issues is beyond your control or the customer’s the one in the wrong, there are still steps you can take to mend fences.

As internationally known sales and service consultant Jonathan Farrington writes:

"Sometimes the customer knows full well that there is nothing you can do. All the customer really wants is someone to hear and respect his or her point of view, and you can always give them that."

So don't make excuses. Remember: focus on the opportunity. Rather than launching into all the reasons the customer has it wrong or all the details of how the bad weather delayed delivery and damaged part of the order, making it hard for everyone … just move forward.  Offer unhappy customers a sincere apology, your thanks and a promise to make it right:

"I'm so sorry for all the inconvenience, and believe me, I would be just as frustrated if this happened to me. Thanks for giving me the chance to make this right — and that's exactly what we're going to do."

This simple formula of empathize + apologize + promise often equals a huge step toward identifying "the real problem," and ultimately, building successful long-term customer relationships.

Rule #2: Show, don’t tell.

After you’ve figured out the problem, find out what the unhappy customer considers an appropriate solution. Propose something specific that offers the fastest resolution, and ask for agreement.

Then, get it done.

Don't put it off. Don't keep talking about the problem or how you can fix it. As the world-renowned "builder of sales champions" Tom Hopkins points out, "You've talked yourself into a second chance with this client, so make sure you don't blow it."

The sooner you deliver on the solution you promised, the quicker you'll be creating another friend of your business.

Rule #3: Follow up and prevent.

Within a reasonable time period (depending on what makes sense for the situation) get back in touch with your formerly unhappy customers and make sure they're happy with the agreed-on solution.

In fact, you should be pleased about the situation — because it gives you an opportunity to learn and improve. In light of what happened:

        •   What can you do to “super-serve” this customer in the future?

        •   Is this an opportunity to make your employees even better at what they do?

        •   Do you need to realign your team (or give them additional training) to better play to their strengths?

        •   Is there a process you can improve?

Asking these kinds of questions is part of ensuring history doesn't repeat itself (preventing more unhappy customers), but it's also just part of making your business run more smoothly.

Your Goal Isn't Only to Defuse the Situation

You want to earn the right (after the dust settles, of course) to ask the customer for repeat business. And if you feel it's appropriate, don't be afraid to ask for their referral business, too.

When you reach that point in the conversation, it might make sense to offer a "return customer" discount and a "thanks for the referral" offer or bonus. It's another way of showing that your business isn't in this to just take their money and run.

When you're facing unhappy customers, sometimes the heat of the moment can override common sense. That's why revisiting the basics from time to time can help.

It's not about acquiring new knowledge or trying new techniques as much as it’s preparing for the possibility of learning something new — tilling the soil for new seeds of knowledge when you're faced with the challenge of unhappy customers in the future.


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