How to Excel in a Customer’s Crisis


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One of the “Aha’s” I’ve had over the many years that I’ve been working with companies to improve their customer-impacting business processes is this: Most firms don’t design for exceptions and breakdowns. They design for the “happy path.” Yet, we all know that what makes or breaks most customer relationships is how your organization/people/process/partners and technologies react when things go awry.

What Do Crisis Specialists Do? There are companies that specialize in handling crises and emergencies (emergency road service, ambulances, hospitals, police and fire departments, insurance companies). These organizations specialize in:

  • Providing 24×7 personal service with a great deal of empathy and appropriate resources
  • Getting to the scene/person quickly (within minutes)
  • Anticipating all contingencies (have all emergency supplies handy)
  • Coordinating multiple service providers
  • Triage (fix what can be prevented/fixed before you deal with what can’t be saved)
  • Great execution/follow up (the scope of this varies depending on the purview of the crisis specialist)
What Do Happy State/Crisis State Companies Do? There are also companies (and even industries) in which certain kinds of crises are so prevalent that there are two states: the happy path/blue sky state and the “sh*t happens” state.

Airlines are a good example. There are so many weather, air traffic control, and equipment-related delays, that most airlines have both proactive and reactive processes in place to help prevent delays from happening (cancel flights that are going to be clobbered by bad weather ahead of time) and to sort things out (passengers, baggage, crews, planes, meals, etc.) when the unforeseen problems occur.

What we can learn from companies in which exceptions are the norm is that the best among them plan proactively to detect and avoid those incidents, and they have smooth-running crisis processes that kick into place when sh*t happens anyway.

What If Exceptions Are the Norm? I once asked the head of operations at a major airline why the flight schedule wasn’t designed to be more exception-driven. He said that an “on-demand/just-in-time airline” would be more realistic for an industry in which exceptions are the norm, but passengers (and the airline) needed to be able to plan ahead. So the entire exercise of running a profitable airline is to try to return the entire airline (planes, crews, passengers) to the same end point/starting point every 12 hours. In other words, everything/everyone gets where they’re supposed to be by the end of the day.

Why Don’t Most Companies Do a Better Job of Designing for Exceptions and Customer Crises? For one thing, what may be a crisis for a customer may be routine or uneventful for your firm, given the fact that you’re dealing with thousands or millions of customers and, for most of them, things are going smoothly. But, for a customer, having an overdrawn checking account, missing a job interview, having a piece of equipment break down—these situations can feel catastrophic!

Most companies design business processes and technology and train their people around the “happy path” use cases/customer scenarios. What we should be doing, IMHO, is designing and training around all the exceptions—let’s be realistic and assume that sh*t happens. What can we/should we do when something goes wrong? Assume everything is going to go wrong. How would you prevent that from happening? And, since you can’t prevent it all the time, what are the best recovery strategies from the customer’s point of view.

What’s the Best Way to Design for Sh*t Happens?
Customers are brilliant and humorous in describing all the things that go awry in their lives. We’ve found that if you recruit a bunch of customers who have just been in the crisis (for them) circumstance you want to understand, and you ask them to design the best possible way(s) to recover from that situation, they’ll show you two things:

1. How to avoid the problem(s) in the first place (including things that have never occurred to you)

2. How to proactively alleviate the customers’ biggest frustrations and concerns.

What Are the Most Common Things that Customers Care About in a Crisis?
We have the advantage of having done this “what to do when sh*t happens?” customer co-design work with clients and their customers in many different industries. Here are some of the things that customers want to have happen, whether the issue is medical, financial, technology-related, or service-related:

1. Everything is taken care of and everyone is happy!
2. You take immediate steps to remedy the current situation
3. You help me with the next steps to achieve my desired outcome

But that’s not all—customers also have a “way” that they want a crisis and its aftermath to be handled. Again, across industries, we find that customers tell us:

  • I want to be reassured that everything will work out
  • I want to be able to see how things are being handled
  • I want to understand what went wrong
  • I want to be assured that it won’t happen again
  • I want to be compensated for any loss
  • I want empathy and support
  • I want a great story and to be the hero of the tale

Why not start here? Assume that sh*t happens. Co-design the best ways to remedy the situation and to help customers achieve their goals. And figure out how to proactively address each of these very human conditions of satisfaction up front.

~ Patty

What Do I Do Now?
When Customers Are in Crisis, How Well Do You Support Them?
By Ronni T. Marshak, Executive VP and Senior Consultant, Patricia Seybold Group, June 28, 2012

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patricia Seybold
With 30 years of experience consulting to customer-centric executives in technology-aggressive businesses across many industries, Patricia Seybold is a visionary thought leader with the unique ability to spot the impact that technology enablement and customer behavior will have on business trends very early. Seybold provides customer-centric executives within Fortune 1 companies with strategic insights, technology guidance, and best practices.


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