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Dealing with Customer Disappointment

– By Andy Hanselman

A few years ago, the BBC became a laughing stock when they produced a 964-page guide for TV licensing staff about how to handle complaints. According to this highly-scientific study, clues that someone isn’t happy include use of phrases like “idiots”, “shambles” or “useless”, “sort yourselves out!” or ‘”when will you people listen?” The guide also states that “I am extremely angry”, “I demand an apology”, “lack of courtesy”, “your failure” or “I will sue” may be signs of an unhappy customer.

Maybe it’s just me, but if I heard one of my customers saying any of those things, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t need to wade through a 900-page guide able to spot there was a problem…

ap-002Most customers accept that things go wrong. It’s how their complaint is dealt with that influences what they do next. That’s why dealing with disappointment is something that really differentiates customer-focused businesses from those that don’t really care. Ideally, this means proactively establishing formal customer feedback processes to find out what customers think and training people to spot disappointment. Crucially, it also means ensuring that staff are empowered to deal with complaints when they find them.

Some unhappy customers go to quite a lot of effort to vent their frustrations when things go wrong. And today, that can have a real impact. They tell their friends and they spread the news via social media. Hassan Syed, a Chicago-based business owner, was so angry with the way British Airways dealt with losing his father’s luggage on a flight from Chicago to Paris that he paid $1,000 to purchase a promoted tweet that read: “Don’t fly @BritishAirways. Their customer service is horrendous”. The message was seen by over 75,000 users and even got picked up by the global media, with Hassan even being interviewed on CNN.

So if you want to avoid getting your reputation being trashed across the globe, follow my five key steps to dealing with disappointment.

1. Acknowledge

A business that acknowledges that it got things wrong, particularly if it is out of character, then deals with it effectively, can often turn disappointment into delight. In other words, just because things go wrong, it doesn’t mean you’ve lost that customer.

Acknowledging the problem can demonstrate that you actually care and many people will respond positively to that. In fact, a real measure of the strength of your customer relationships is the size of cock-up you can make and still keep the business.

2. Empower people to deal with it

The best businesses empower their people to deal with disappointment. I’m often sceptical about the word ‘empowerment’ because it’s so over-used, but in those businesses that do it properly, things get done when things go wrong.

Here’s a simple test to see how empowered your people really are. How much can your people spend or authorise without having to come to senior management for permission? For example, Ritz Carlton Hotels give everyone in their business authority to spend up to $2,000 to resolve a customer’s problem or deal with a complaint on the spot without having to get permission from a manager. Now, THAT’s empowerment.

3. Be prepared

What are the things that typically disappoint your customers? Why not get your people together and identify typical or regular problems and points of conflict, and then develop ideas and solutions to sort it out. Train them and put processes and systems in place to deal with disappointment.

4. Seek out complaints

Instead of just dealing with disappointment, successful organisations look for it. They don’t wait for complaints, they go out and find them. In fact, these businesses probably get more complaints than others because their people are actively asking customers if they have any. It might seem weird, but the easier you are to complain to, the more customer focussed you’re likely to be.

5. Just deal with it!

So go on, you know it makes sense. Learn to look for it then learn to deal with it. And to establish how well your business measures up, ask yourself this simple question: when things go wrong with your customers, do your people:

  • Provide honest, straightforward answers?
  • Show someone has listened?
  • Help make sense of things?

If not, what are you going to do about it?


hanselmanAndy Hanselman is a business competitiveness specialist who helps leaders creative competitive advantage, maximise customer relationships and improve customer care. Recognised by Enterprise Magazine as a Future Top 100 Entrepreneur, he has over 17 years experience working with, and learning from directors, partners and senior managers of literally thousands of forward thinking businesses.

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