Clients can become upset with us for many reasons, some of which are within our control, and others that aren’t. We make mistakes, forget things, have bad days, or simply get overwhelmed by the unexpected. Such is life. However, what happens afterward determines the future of that relationship, and countless other potential relationships that that client’s experience may influence when reported either directly or via social media.

Last week, the excellent Attorney at Work blog published Dealing with an Upset Client, which included some surprising research results showing that “depending on the industry, between 65 and 85 percent of customers or clients who defected said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the company they abandoned,” and provided some good advice by Sally Schmidt.  

“...depending on the industry, between 65 and 85 percent of customers or clients who defected said they were 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied' with the company they abandoned.”

There will always be a story told. Which version, though?

As a consumer, I occasionally experience failures, counterproductive attitudes and policies, and poor skills and training by suppliers. And, yes, they make me upset, and I express that.

During such encounters, I tell the company’s representative, “OK, what’s happened has happened. What happens next is what’s important. There will be a story told about this, and you get to decide which version. You’ll decide that right now by what you say and do next. Will I tell everyone a brand-enhancing version along the lines of “I can’t believe what they did to make this right,” or will it be “I can’t believe they didn’t care enough to make this right”?

When I was first out of college, I managed a jewelry store in a national chain. Here’s how we were trained to handle customer complaints:

1) Listen to the customer’s tale, without interrupting

2) Feed it back to them accurately, and explicitly confirm that you understand correctly. “Do I have that right?”

3) Sincerely empathize and apologize. “I understand why you’re upset. In your shoes, I would be, too. I’m sorry. We should never have allowed that to happen.”

4) Promise resolution, and let them choose its form. “We’re going to make this right. What would make you happier than you thought was possible when you came in to report this?” Wait for a reply. They may need a few moments to shift gears from preparing for the expected argument to choosing what they want. Nothing eliminates steam quite like, “You’re right. What do you want?” If they’re not quite finished venting, and begin to rehash the story, patiently let them go through it again, uninterrupted. With each retelling, it loses more of its intensity and emotion. Reconfirm that you understand correctly. Then, repeat the question: “What would make you happier than you thought was possible when you came in to report this?”

(What you’re really asking is, “What will it take for you to rave about us afterward?” That’s the lasting impact. Everything else is transient.)

5) Deliver a solution, as quickly as possible, without regard to expense or difficulty. Make it happen.

6) Never offer a discount or other partial price accommodation. It sounds and feels like you’re trying to solve it cheaply. Think about when you complain to a restaurant manager about the food or service, and he offers you a free dessert, or removes the single item from the bill. Doesn’t it feel hollow?

Instead, refund or forfeit the entire charge. Think about how you reacted when that same restaurant complaint resulted in them comp-ing your entire check. Now, there’s a story to tell. Remember, your goal is for them to recognize that the only thing you care about is that they’re thrilled. Give them a compelling reason to tell the story of how thrilled and amazed they are with how you handled it.

This is not about the amount in question today. It’s about the amount they will or won’t spend with you over the balance of their career or life. (In the ‘80s, Carl Sewell, author of Customers for Life, who at the time was the largest Cadillac dealer in the US, commissioned research that revealed that when you totaled all the new and used cars purchased, and all the service revenue, the average Cadillac customer was worth $335,000 over the course of their lifetime ($750,000 in today's dollars). This is the amount you should focus on, not the $1000 it costs to resolve this problem and make them a stark, raving fan.

7) Take ownership of the outcome, and remain involved. Promise a concrete next step that eliminates their fear that they’ll be abandoned to a black hole after they leave your presence or disconnect the call. “I’ll be in touch with you no later than [date] to make sure everything has happened as promised.”

8) Contact them, ideally before the promised date, but no later, to confirm that the solution happened as promised.

9) Ask if your solution and timing hit the high bar you promised, i.e., that they’re happier than they thought they could be at the time of the upsetting incident.

10) If “yes,” ask if this puts everything to bed for them. Thank them for the opportunity to learn about this shortcoming and to make things right. If “no,” return to Step 1.

Number 4 is the big enabler. Allow the aggrieved client to choose the remedy. Intentionally set the bar sky high. Your goal isn’t for them merely to feel like they’re no longer being harmed, or that the damage has merely been repaired. You want them to feel like they’re better off than they would have been if it hadn’t happened at all. They’ll be surprised by your carte blanche offer, and it will convey important benefits:

  • It will eliminate the last trace of anger.

  • They’ll ask for much less than you would have offered.

  • It will be their solution, not yours.

  • They’ll forever tell the story of how they got to choose the solution.

Without number 5, though, you’ll have made things worse. If you thought they were upset with the original problem, get ready for a whole new level of ire if you raise the expectations bar and fail to deliver. You’ll lose all credibility and trust, the person will feel they’ve wasted their time talking with you, and will feel foolish for having believed you. If you make someone feel foolish, they’ll never forgive you, and that’s about as toxic as it gets.

Mike O'Horo

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