10 steps to handling an unhappy client

It started out as a great day. Things were going well. Humming along. And then you got a call or message from a grumpy customer. Something’s wrong. They’re upset and they want you to fix it. Now. Yikes!

Don’t panic. When emergency responders and aircraft pilots run into problems, they follow proven checklists to save people. You can do this too. Be a hero. Save your customers with this 10-step process.

1. The first person to whom the client complains becomes the owner of the problem and its solution. In many top companies, the No. 1 rule of customer service is that the first person to hear the customer problem “owns” the problem. They cannot shift the problem to another employee by leaving a voicemail. They cannot put a yellow sticky note on someone else’s desk. They must immediately fix the problem or turn it over to another employee in real time who will immediately fix the problem. When they do turn it over to another employee, they make sure that the customer knows how the problem will be handled and that they still care and should be called back if the person who’s handling the problem doesn’t completely satisfy the customer.

2. Thank customers when they notify you of a problem. They really are giving you a gift. They appreciate being acknowledged and thanked.

3. Paraphrase the complaint in your own words to make sure you understand. For example, start with: “Let me see if I understand you completely…”

4. Ask for details. Take notes and do not interrupt. Even if you think the complaint is silly, do not let the customers know that. Make it clear that you are on their side and don’t argue. Another reason to ask for details comes from neuroscience. Emotions and details are handled in different parts of the brain. As a result, an emotional customer will calm down when asked for details.

5. Sympathize. Soothe the customer with responses such as, “I’m sorry you had to go through this” or “Based on what you told me, I can see why you are upset.” From the customer’s viewpoint, they will find it hard to be upset with someone who is agreeing with them.

6. Do not interrupt the customer until they fully express themselves. Show that you care.

7. Ask them about their expectations. Ask questions such as, “How would you like to see this problem resolved?” or “How can we make this up to you?” These questions will get to the heart of their pain. It also makes them a collaborator with you in devising an acceptable solution.

8. Commit to solving the problem. Attempt to fix the problem before you complete the conversation with the customer. If you can’t, tell them, “I will solve this problem today” or “I will get back to you within 24 hours.”

9. Follow up to cement the relationship. Make sure that you solved the problem quickly and to the customer’s satisfaction by making a follow-up call. Provide explanations to the customer about what you are doing to prevent recurrence of the problem. Invite them to contact you immediately if the problem recurs. This is also a good time to give the disgruntled customer something extra.

10. Take internal action to prevent similar problems in the future. You may want to inform your manager, the customer-service manager, and the head of quality assurance of the problem and resolution and, of course, enter it all in your customer relationship management system.

The two key themes in this 10-step process are ownership and listening. It’s what each of us wants when we call about problems and it’s what world-class organizations deliver every time.

And don’t forget to fix problems quickly. Everyone expects a problem with a product or service now and then, but they do want someone to acknowledge the problem and take action. And when a company shows they care and takes action immediately, it increases customer satisfaction and loyalty. Quickly fixed problems can build your brand and increase your sales. Be a hero. Save your customer and save your company.

Written by John Asher for CW Magazine.

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