Your Company Messed Up, so What’s Next?


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We all make mistakes, whether personal or in business, but the important question in every case is, What are we going to do about it? When it comes to business, maintaining a good relationship with your customers is crucial, and when your company has fallen short of its promises, repairing any damaged relationships can be a matter of survival.

Unfortunately, our worst instincts might kick in if we’re facing a business blunder. To defend the business or simply avoid a conflict, we could ignore the problem or even deny that it exists. In business, fixing major screw-ups falls outside the normal routine of the workday, so it’s tempting to put off any painful remedies, hoping that the problem will resolve itself and go away.

Such a reaction (or non-reaction) doesn’t match the reality, however. Since mistakes will always happen from time to time, identifying them and taking appropriate action ought to be a regular business practice for all employees. Just as you expect to get sick once in a while, and when you get sick, you take appropriate measures to restore your health and make a recovery, sustaining the health of business requires similar constant attention.

Here is an example of bad customer service that shows what not to do when your business has made a mistake. United Airlines has recently suffered its share of P.R. disasters, but one good illustration comes from an event that occurred in 2008. When a Canadian musician named Dave Carroll witnessed baggage handlers mishandling his $3,500 Taylor guitar on the tarmac, he notified three United employees. Unfortunately, those employees reacted with indifference, and Carroll later discovered that they had broken the neck of his valuable instrument. He called United customer service on the phone and sent emails, even offering to be reimbursed through $1,200 in flight vouchers, but the company refused to help. Left without recourse, what did Carroll do? He wrote a song, of course, and titled it United Breaks Guitars. The popularity of his song resulted in exploding a single customer’s complaint into a full-blown customer service disaster that cost United millions of negative YouTube views and a possibly related stock price drop to the tune of $180 million.

This example demonstrates the backlash that can arise from a simple mistake, made worse by bad customer service. This customer happened to have a public medium for expressing his dissatisfaction with music, but any upset customer today can make his or her voice heard in this era of social media.

Instead of following that bad example, here’s what you should do. First, admit that you have a problem. Don’t try to hide it. In fact, publicize the fact that you made a mistake because that will be your platform for publicizing your remedy.

As for that remedy, over-deliver on the fix. Delight your customers and impress prospective customers by not only apologizing and making amends but giving them more than they expect. Turning your lemons into lemonade served on a silver platter will cost a little more in time and money, but the intangible returns could very well lead to bottom-line results later.

Defective consumer products pose the additional complication of threatening the health of customers, as well as inviting legal risks due to negligence. These concerns ought to outweigh any others, so if you’re a provider of potentially dangerous products and you discover a defect, some additional remedial steps ought to come first. First, consult with a qualified attorney. If any of your customers have been injured or suspect injury from your products, you can be assured that some of them will seek legal representation of their own. “Anyone who has been injured by a defective product may have a financial claim against the public manufacturer,” says Darren Miller, a defective medical devices lawyer.

Second, notify the appropriate regulatory body. In collaboration with regulators and experts, consider issuing a product recall and/or a pubic advisory statement. Finally, after engaging those crucial steps, consider the steps described above to make your customers happy with your products and services again.

It’s common sense to treat customers well. In fact, it’s just an extension of the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. For the best customer service results, keep this in mind when your company has made a mistake, and act accordingly.


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