The Art of Customer Crisis Handling: 5 Rules to Stay Cool and Win

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Sometimes, things go wrong despite your best efforts. This situation happens everywhere. Even the most well-managed companies will have things go wrong. So, it’s not a matter of if but when regarding a customer crisis.

Too many organizations do not plan for a customer crisis, and I want to change that. The key to handling it well is to master the art of staying cool. To that end, I have five rules to handle a customer crisis.

Rule #1: Have a plan and process.

In some ways, a customer crisis is a couple of levels up in intensity and a few down in frequency from a customer complaint. Many of the principles we use to manage a customer complaint apply in this planning and building of a crisis process.

First, reframing how you look at a customer complaint is essential. I always looked at customer complaints as a form of free market research. The customer is volunteering their time and energy to inform you of a potential problem in your experience. Organizations should consider what they do with this free market research. Are they leveraging its value to its full potential?

Second, there should be a way to manage customer complaints in place, which can serve as the starting point for your crisis plan. By that, I mean that the team plays defined roles in resolving those complaints, so there should also be defined team roles in managing a crisis. These roles will have tasks; the sum of these tasks is the plan.

Finally, it is essential to revisit the plan and ensure it continues to be updated where possible and necessary. Moreover, rehearsing the crisis plan should be an active part of the company’s operational functions.

Consider the Y2K crisis at the turn of this past century. I was still in telecom back then, and we had a Wargame scenario that we played out regarding the impending millennium changeover. We had jobs to do during a hiccup, and we used to practice them. As the leader of that particular crisis management plan, I was grateful for the chance to have a low-pressure, low-stakes run-through rather than a trial by fire in an actual crisis where the stakes couldn’t be any higher.

However, a key difference exists between my example and managing your customer crisis. We knew exactly when a Y2K crisis might strike and prepared for it beforehand. Your customer crisis doesn’t usually have an appointment. It likes to happen out of nowhere on an ordinary Thursday afternoon or some other innocuous time.

Also, it is essential that when you define the roles, you also define your employees’ empowerment. When pandemonium strikes on this “Black Thursday,” your people must be empowered to make decisions and act quickly. If you have people in key roles seeking permission from their usual superiors, you are impeding the success of your plan.

Moreover, you should inform your customers that you have a plan. This forethought works wonders for your customer relationships, even if it feels counterintuitive.

For example, when you go on a cruise, you first practice your boat evacuation drill. One could argue that reminding your passengers that a watery death is possible just before they embark on a sea journey with you might not seem the best way to go regarding customer experiences. However, it does provide peace of mind that there is a plan, that the crew knows what to do, and that everyone has practiced in case something goes wrong.

The Service Recovery Paradox comes into play here, too. The Service Recovery Paradox occurs when a service failure improves customer relationships. It speaks to the power of dealing with a critical situation well to build customer relationships. Most customers understand that things go wrong. After all, it also happens to them. When you manage it well and fix the problem to the best of your ability, you can gain the respect of many of your customers.

Rule #2: Stay calm and listen.

This rule is critical for front-line employees. Whoever is taking the complaint or is the next step in escalating the problem must resist the temptation to succumb to agitation. Instead, they should seek an understanding of the problem’s impact.

Showing empathy is crucial in these interactions. Customers will probably have strong emotional responses to these service failures.

For example, the customer is likely to be upset about the problem and, in some cases, might be in trouble. So, your job is to listen and apologize as it makes sense. Assigning blame or reminding customers that they shouldn’t have done what they did that led to this issue will not be productive. Collecting the necessary details about what happened will be productive and help you get the service up and running again.

Rule #3: Be honest, sincere, and empathetic.

Often, people receiving customer complaints do not want to tell the customer the complete truth in these situations; they want to hide something because the front-line employee knows that the information they withhold will upset the customer even more once they hear it. In my experience, this strategy doesn’t work, but honesty and transparency do.

Will the customer be more upset with the whole story? Probably. However, their emotional reaction to more bad news does not mean that withholding information is the right thing to do. Trust is built from honesty and transparency, and since trust is integral to any customer relationship, it is essential to build it at all times, even the bad ones.

Rule #4: Communicate, communicate, communicate.

When there is an unresolved problem, telling customers what is happening is essential. Updates are key, even when there isn’t much to say. Make it clear when customers should expect your next communication whenever possible. Knowing that you will be back in touch regarding the issue and when that communication will be helps de-escalate a stressful situation.

For example, our telecom company once had a communications line cut to a metropolitan area in the English countryside. The whole city lost its service. It would take an engineer three hours to repair the problem, so we told the people there that. That way, as time rolled on and their service continued to be unavailable, they had a timeline on when they could expect a change. Knowing nothing could happen until then helped them manage the next few hours without service.

Consistent communication in a crisis also demonstrates to customers the organization’s commitment to the customer’s satisfaction. This perception of commitment is enhanced more when the communication occurs outside regular business hours. In the case of the telecommunications line situation, I was at a wedding reception when this happened on a Saturday night. The customer knew I was managing it from there and on my own time, which they appreciated.

Rule #5: Review and resolve.

After resolution, it is essential to review what happened with the customer. I recommend writing it up and presenting the report to the client. This report should cover the problem, how it was resolved, and, if applicable, what the company will do differently to avoid the problem’s recurrence.

Generally, this rule presents good advice for the organization. You want the organization to improve and respond better next time. However, this exercise can also be vital in Customer Experience Management. Customers will probably appreciate the chance to contribute to the report, too. They might feel motivated to improve the experience for themselves and future customers. Plus, they understand that the organization listens to what they say and includes them as part of the solution.

The bottom line is that handling a customer crisis requires staying cool, listening, demonstrating honesty and transparency, communicating consistently, and reviewing what you can learn from the experience. Moreover, showing that you recognize it is incumbent upon you to learn from the experience and create an improved future experience shows customers that you care. These are the essential ways to turn a customer complaint or crisis into customer loyalty.

What would you add to this list? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

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Colin has conducted numerous educational workshops, on how to improve your Customer Experience, to inspire and motivate your team. He prides himself on making this fun, humorous, and practical. Speak to Colin and find out more. Click here!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.

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