Here’s why messing up is a chance to excel at customer service


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Sorry tweetMany of us grow up to believe that ‘getting in trouble’ is bad. If you’ve done something that upsets your friend, mum or teacher, that’s a bad thing. You’re punished and/or forced to say sorry, and that’s that.

This may well be true when you’re five years old and have stolen a few cookies from the cookie jar. But when you’re all grown up, saying an empty sorry isn’t nearly good enough. And it’s a missed chance: sorting out mistakes is a fantastic way to win customer loyalty.
Check out these three examples of how messing up is really just a chance to show your customers what you can do.

1. Short-term pain for long-term gain: the customer is always right, even when (s)he’s not.

I learned this lesson in real life back in my student days, working as a waitress in an Italian restaurant. We had a huge group in one Saturday night, and something went wrong with the orders. (Just between us: a few of these guys had had a few too many drinks and forgotten what they’d actually ordered.) There wasn’t much point in arguing, so – with the complete support of the restaurant owners – I played along, apologised sincerely and got them what they really wanted. At the end of the evening, I was surprised to be rewarded with effusive thanks for the great service, some really big tips, and praise from my boss who was clearly delighted with the outcome.

You might be thinking: “Yeah, but what about the cost of the wasted meals? The restaurant probably made a loss overall on that table, so why was your boss so happy?” My boss was looking at the big picture. Making a loss on a single customer event is a case of short-term pain for long-term gain. You can lose money righting a wrong which wasn’t even your fault in the first place, the customer will probably never do business with you again. But if you insist on making a point of your customer’s mistake and actually blaming him/her, they’ll most definitely never come back. So what do you get out of it? Well, you get to be ‘right’. Can you pay the rent with that?

2. Sympathize, apologize, make it right: don’t explain.

Customers have long memories, and they bear grudges. A recent survey showed that 70% of customers won’t forgive a business for a poor customer service experience (as opposed to a problem with the actual product or service on offer). So what is a ‘poor’ experience? Good service is responding to a customer complaint with sympathy, an apology, and a plan to correct the issue. Bad customer service is: giving an explanation.

That happened to me just last week when my regular planned grocery delivery didn’t turn up. The delivery day came and went: no box from HelloFresh. I emailed the company explaining the issue, kindly asking what had happened and how we could avoid it in the future. After an initial email telling me that I hadn’t actually made an order, I responded by AGAIN forwarding my confirmation email and repeating my request. This is the response I got: “I think it was caused by a bug in our system. You changed your delivery to Monday evening, and this caused a problem with the week numbers. Would you like to order for next week?”

So how do I know that next week’s delivery is going to show up? Answer: I don’t. And I have no idea whether the bug in the system has been or will be fixed, or whether there was anything I could have done to avoid the problem. There’s one thing I do know though: the customer service rep couldn’t care less.

There are a million and one ways that the company could have made this right. At a bare minimum, typing out one little five-letter word (“sorry”) would have helped. It wouldn’t even have cost them anything! Adding some information on when the bug would be fixed would have been great. If they had really wanted to go above and beyond, offering me a discount on my next delivery would have shown me that they cared about keeping me as a customer.

3. Don’t shrug your customers off: be human and proactive.

Sod’s law says that no matter how hard you try to keep everything running smoothly, something’s always going to fall through the gaps. A few months back I ordered an item from an online retailer which assured me on its web page that the item was in stock and would be dispatched within 24 hours. I wasn’t in a huge hurry, so it wasn’t until I hadn’t heard anything for about a week that I dropped them a line to make sure that they’d received my order. Their reply: “We have just heard from the wholesaler that the item won’t be available for another three weeks. Our apologies for the delay, and for the fact that we didn’t inform you earlier.”

Right… Not brilliant, but okay then.

Four weeks later I still hadn’t heard from them, so I sent a quick email saying just: “Any news?” I received this reply: “Unfortunately we won’t have the item for another week. Our apologies for the delay, and for the fact that we didn’t inform you earlier.”

That was when I realised I never wanted to do business with this company again. Not because my order had been delayed, but because their boilerplate text gave away the fact that they never kept customers updated about their orders – so much so that they frequently added it as a macro!

The funny thing is that the company probably assumes that if an order is late, they’ve already lost the customer so there’s not too much point in worrying about it. But they underestimate us. I would have been fine if I had received a personal message like: “I’m sorry that this order can’t be delivered on time. Our suppliers have assured us that it will be in stock again on X date. Our sincere apologies for the inconvenience. Please note that we also offer this product in these alternative colours which we currently do have in stock [include links].”

Customers are actually forgiving creatures when things go wrong – as long as you respond to them in polite and friendly terms. Be human to your fellow human beings, and you’ll be all right. Give them, however, the email equivalent of a shrug, there’s a good chance that you’ve lost them forever.


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