How to Deal With Customer Misunderstandings

When something goes sideways and a customer — or many customers — are unhappy, what can you do to fix the problem, especially if you might have caused it by accident?

How to Deal With Customer Misunderstandings

Years ago, a company’s employee created a sale campaign on a Wednesday in late November, set it to begin on Black Friday, and then promptly went home for the weekend. By Sunday, someone high up in the company started to see messages on social media about the $100 wheeled loadout bags his company was selling on their Black Friday promotion. People were bragging about buying up to 10 bags per order. A quick calculation led him to the conclusion that his employer was well on its way to going bankrupt, selling the bags at below cost. They quickly gathered their wits and pulled the campaign. Then, someone started sending out emails cancelling already-placed orders. As you can imagine, the buying public was livid, even though most acknowledged that they were taking advantage of the company. 

My last few installments to this column have discussed how to work with influencers and what to do about trolls. But what I haven’t explored is what to do if you or one of your employees gets into a misunderstanding with the public or makes a mistake. The steps I’ll outline are applicable regardless of the magnitude of the issue. It’s the impact of the issue which should guide you on how you approach each of the steps. 

Just like with influencers, it’s imperative that employees understand that they do not make company policy, unless it’s their actual job. Employees must also understand that they shouldn’t use company social media platforms to share their personal opinions. However, remember that your employees are a reflection of your company, so even if they make a mistake, your company bears the burden of rectifying it. 

In the event an incident occurs, even if you have fixed blame on an individual, the company must fix the mistake. Do not single an employee out to customers, even if their behavior merits termination. 

Missteps with the public often arise over pricing, terms and conditions, or shipping, so it’s imperative to be very explicit in copy as well as in directions to employees who will be dealing with customers. Most of these incidents are avoidable or can be quickly rectified. However, if something happens, don’t act rashly. Take stock of what happened and figure it out. Then, create a plan of action based on the steps I’ll outline below. 

First off, acknowledge the mistake. Admit the issue, offering as much transparency as possible. 

Second, let the public know what you’re doing to rectify the situation. Keep it simple and straightforward. 

Third, ask for forgiveness. You don’t have to come right out and beg for it. Instead, it’s best to roll it into the admission of the issue at hand. For example, “Unfortunately, we had a long delay in shipping. In response, we’ve hired an extra clerk and hope you can understand while we work through the backlog.” This allows the customer to accept your explanation with a mutual desire that it won’t happen again. 

Fourth, make it up to the aggrieved party. Many of you will be familiar with the concept of an act of contrition. Offering up something makes the customer feel better. In the issue of shipping delays, perhaps offer upgraded shipping on the delayed order or a discount on the next order.

The fifth and final step to take is to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Change policies if needed and get the word out to employees and customers alike. Make the issue a momentary blip on the radar rather than a recurring problem. 

One thing you will have to accept is that even though you’ve made right on your mistake, some people will never forgive you and never let you forget it. It’s understandable at first, but as long as you continue to show others that the issue was a one-time thing, most of it should subside. For those who continue to dredge up the past and go out of their way to hold it against you, it’s okay to treat them and their disruptive behavior as you would a troll.

To review:

1.     Acknowledge the mistake.

2.     Detail steps to fix the issue.

3.     Ask for forgiveness.

4.     Make it up to them.

5.     Walk the walk.

Not everything needs to be public. Many issues can be dealt with via a simple email or phone call. If you choose to use email, or a social media post, make sure your message is clear and cannot be misconstrued by the reader to cause further damage. No need to belabor a point. Keep the response as short and direct as possible while maintaining a tone of understanding. Stay on message and don’t get pulled into arguments or dragged off topic in the event it is in social media. 

As for that company in the opening anecdote, they called me and I outlined the same steps I’ve shared with you. They rectified the situation by honoring parts of the orders and offering discounts for future sales. Not everyone was happy with their decision, but they didn’t go out of business, and they never again engaged in a fire-and-forget sale campaign. 

The goal is to work through any misunderstandings and reintroduce public

confidence in your company. These steps will help. Plus, believe it or not, they’ll apply in your personal life as well. Try them — they work.



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