How to handle unhappy customers

By Scott Westerman
“Unhappy customers can be the key to your success, if you’re listening.”

The Essence: Avoiding embarrassing customer situations can be a simple process. Listen, respond, apologize, follow through… and learn.

This past week, we had some interaction with one of the major airlines’ social media teams. It was what my wife would classify as a #fail. The short version of the story is that the company lost six fares to a competitor that could have easily been transformed into six fanatical fans.

Back when all of this tweet stuff was still new, I had the honor of working with my buddy Frank Eliason to help conceive Comcast’s social media escalation team. I also had the pleasure of interacting with Southwest Airlines in the early weeks of their social media initiative. They are one airline that does a good job in the space.

How can I help,” are the magic words Frank used to turn Comcast’s customer service image around. He leveraged the answer to that one question into a process improvement program that moved customer perception needle at the company in a positive direction, and ended up helping us discover efficiency opportunities we never knew we had.

Another key is authentic compassion. The drive toward scripted answers, inflexible policies and digital automated response systems may throw short term savings to the bottom line. But it may not be a sustainable competitive advantage. The March, 2011 edition of WIRED discusses how a handful of American manufacturers are beating the Chinese with a laser beam focus on both quality and customer service. The lesson: If you can effectively communicate that you genuinely care about us, you will get our business.

Beyond the mechanics of service failure recovery, there is the cultural vibe we try to create in the marketplace. The Comcast escalation team had their own identities and personalities. They were real people. So are the folks at @Zappos_Service. Check out their twitter identity to see how the Zappos culture radiates out into the social sphere.

You don’t have to be a social media zen master to understand and execute an effective recovery strategy. Here’s how to do it:

Listen – When someone raises their hand, try to understand the nature of their problem as quickly and in as much detail as possible. Get the interaction out of the public eye. On Twitter you can use the DM feature to share email addresses if you’re worried about a spam storm.

Respond – Do your best to try to fix the problem. Do it quickly. Keep the customer in the loop on your progress every step of the way. If you can’t fix it, tell them so.

Apologize and Thank Them – Thank them for taking the time to help you improve how you serve. Most customers will do what I did: Give up and take their business elsewhere. Those who care enough to tell you what you’re doing wrong are giving you golden gifts that can make your operation better, and ultimately more successful.

Follow Through – Do what you say you’ll do. If you were able to fix their problem, check back with them in a week to make sure the rest of the company delivered on the promise you made. Too often, the ball gets dropped again. By being proactive, you can catch it before it hits the ground.

Learn – Whatever the resolution, be sure to tell the customer you will share what you’ve learned with the people who can do something to fix the process. Feedback is a great way to ferret out root causes. Help your company build a system to aggregate this stuff and use it to prioritize improvements.

That’s all there is to it. Five paragraphs, 256 words that can literally mean the difference between success and failure. These ideas work, whether you meet an unhappy customer on twitter, on the phone, or in the grocery store.

By the way… We ended up booking six tickets..  On Southwest.

The opinions in this blog post are my own.