If you're in business, you will have customers. If you have customers, chances are high that not all your customer relationships are as solid as you would like them to be. And if you have been in business long enough you will have experienced at least one customer relationship that has simply went off the rails. Of course there can be many reasons for this, but the net result is: a vey unhappy customer! And maybe even an eager competitor hovering in the wings ready to snap them up at your expense. So, what are your options now and what can (and should) you do about it?
One of the first and often least considered options is to let the customer go. Sometimes customers can simply be more hassle than they're worth. Maybe too needy, maybe too unreliable or maybe simply a poor match with your company's values or value propositions. Cutting a customer loose can be the smart choice, especially when they drain vital resources, employee motivation and morale, or cash and resources, for a return that is simply not commensurate with their contribution. I would personally consider this as the last (but viable) option, and should only be considered when all other options to recover the relationship or issue at hand have been exhausted.
Assuming there are no irregularities or illegal challenges with the customer interaction, the causes of an unhappy customer normally reside in a difference of perception. The perception of what they (the customer) expected and what you (the supplier) ultimately delivered. This might not only be a product, but could also be a service, a support commitment, or in fact anything that they expected from you, the supplier, as part of the paid transaction. It therefore makes sense before any remedial action is considered, to fully understand what expectations were/are in place, were these expectations valid, and was there in fact a mismatch between their perceptions and the delivered (current) reality. Consider these 7 points as you navigate through this discovery part of the recovery process: -
- Is it clear what the customer wanted previously, and is now currently expecting?
- Were commitments made by you, the supplier, which were non-ambiguous, in writing and practically achievable?
- Was all communication ("the communication trail") in writing, or were some things either said verbally, or even worse merely implied?
- Is the challenge currently contained so as not to make things worse?
- Is there a formal (internal) process for handling customer complaints (issues) and has it been successfully initiated?
- Has the communication between both companies been elevated to the appropriate level of management?
- Is it clear exactly what's at stake if this customer issue is not successfully resolved?
The last point is particularly important since many companies don't contemplate the full life-time-value (LTV) of a customer either in terms of revenues or profit, nor the sales and marketing costs required to find a new, equal size customer if this one is eventually lost. And then there's the challenge that many supplier companies face which is the possible negative press and its repercussions that can prevail, especially with the proliferation of social media and the web. So, assuming you now know all of the above, what's the best way of getting back on an even keel with your irate customer? Of course there are many options on how best to handle this, but consider these tried and trusted methods and see which ones fit your current scenario best:
1. Acknowledge the challenge: this must be done in the shortest time possible. When you receive a customer complaint or issue, treat it as top priority since every second you don't respond is a second closer to losing the customer in the future to your eager competition.
2. Instigate a containment plan: kick-start immediate containment actions to stop re-occurrence if relevant, and prove how responsive you can be as a caring supplier.
3. Resolve the issue: and do so in the best possible manner (to the customer's satisfaction) in the shortest period of time. Remember that it's not fully resolved unless you receive confirmation directly from the customer that it's resolved to their satisfaction.
4. Go above and beyond the call of duty: as a way of recognizing the importance of the issue and proving your company respects the customer relationship enough to do something immediate and special.
5. Instigate root-cause analysis: internally to get to the bottom of the issue, with documented corrective actions to ensure the issue does not re-occur. This ultimately ensures it will not happen (or reduces the risk of it happening) again, and is time well invested since ultimately it will strengthen your company.
6. Determine the learnings for other customers: and ensure your systems, processes, etc. are robust enough to safeguard all your other valuable customers. If any offsides are identified at this stage, nip these issues in the bud as soon as possible.
7. Initiate a customer satisfaction survey: to ensure the issue is now resolved fully to the customer's satisfaction and not just yours. Giving your customer a voice at this stage shows them you are open and accommodating to their feedback. And of course depending on this feedback, there may be more follow-up work required.
8. Create a Customer Satisfaction Council: that handles all complaints in a very rapid timeframe and has the power to make things right. This team should be empowered to do what's required to resolve customer issues as their No. 1 mandate, and must have the support of both senior management and the entire company.
9. Institutionalize any changes: and communicate to the customer in a way that shows rapid response, knowledge of what they need, and a commitment that shows they are a highly-valued customer for you. This last part is often the most important since resolving an issue is one thing, but ensuring the customer feels heard, was taken seriously and now trusts the issue will not happen again is fundamental to a successful long-term relationship.
There's an old saying in business that postulates the very best customers you have today are likely the ones who have encountered a significant challenge with your company in the past, and then experienced your resolve to remedy the situation to their satisfaction in a timely manner. It's true there can be a real bonding of the relationship under these testing circumstances, and I have personally experienced it many times in the past working at different companies. Understand well that companies, just like people, love to be pampered with love and attention!
Now you have secured this trusted and happy customer, consider doing something really class-leading, and invest quality time looking into the future and seeing how you can ensure future problems are headed off before they actually materialize. This is not only smart thinking and pro-active customer satisfaction in action, but done well will surely propel you well ahead of your hungry competitors. And your customers will likely stay loyal to you, and reward you with additional revenues and profits to satisfy your future growth and stability. Now that really is what's called being on the upward spiral!