Sunday, August 27, 2000

Rebuild trust with an angry customer

By Joyce M. Rosenberg
The Associated Press

        NEW YORK — It's probably inevitable. Although you try hard to run your business well, one of your customers calls, furious about your product or service or the way your employees sound over the phone.

        Maybe it's one of your best customers. You have a potential disaster on your hands.

        When dealing with an angry customer, the first step is to “explain the situation and what happened,” said Lisa Stubbendick, regional director of the Small Business Development Center at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

        And stay calm.

        “These customers weren't expecting this — it's not their fault. The business person needs to understand that and not get on the defensive with a defensive tone and attitude,” Ms. Stubbendick said.

        You also need to think about maintaining — or even rebuilding — your relationship with the customer. Consultants often advise businesses to use discounts or other incentives to convince customers of a company's good intentions and rebuild trust after a problem has occurred. took such a step just this week, after a computer glitch promised customers unintended discounts of 50 percent or more. Amazon canceled many of the orders, but it offered customers who were affected a $5 gift certificate.

        Cliff Tong, chief executive officer of Diverse Strategies, a management consulting firm in Lafayette, Calif., suggests business owners take the attitude of Johnson & Johnson in 1982 after someone put cyanide into bottles of Tylenol capsules, killing seven people. The poisonings took place after the drugs had left the factory, but Johnson & Johnson took responsibility by recalling its products and changing its manufacturing process to prevent future contamination.

        “That is now one of the classic cases on how to deal with a disaster — what they did was they came clean,” Mr. Tong said.

        Small businesses will find that “people are willing to forgive mistakes more readily if they feel that you're not just trying to make excuses or cover up problems,” he said.

        But sometimes a customer is particularly irate and seems unreasonable, and might just be wrong. It might be tempting to say, the heck with them.

        Ms. Stubbendick suggested business owners think about the time and effort needed to keep such a customer happy. Is it worth it? Maybe you'll decide it's not — but think again.

        “It could be a potentially strong customer you're losing,” Ms. Stubbendick said.

        If a disagreement with a customer becomes public, you might want to acknowledge to other customers that there was a dispute and that you'll try to be sure they don't run into similar problems.

        “I would be doing an immediate public awareness campaign and then possibly turn a disaster into a marketing program,” Mr. Tong said.

        It also might be helpful to look at a disaster as an opportunity to gather some really critical information about your company and how well it's doing. Consider it a kind of marketing research.

        Ms. Stubbendick advised business owners to “survey or evaluate some of the customers that did leave and find out why specifically they left. That will help your current client base.”

        In the end, prevention is probably the best route. Look at your business and see where there might be nascent problems that could later turn into disaster.

        For instance, look at your employees. Are they encouraged to be polite, even friendly, with customers? Moreover, what kind of working environment do you give them? Are they well-paid? Under a lot of pressure? An unhappy work force can lead to mistakes or rudeness.

        Look at yourself, and your approach toward your customers. Does your attitude create trust and loyalty, and make it more likely that customers will be understanding if a problem crops up?

        Brenda Hopper, director of the New Jersey Small Business Development Center, advises business owners to “be sure you're projecting a very positive image to your customers, that you're truthful and honest.”

        “The customers pay the salaries and make the profits for the company,” Ms. Hopper said. “Let them feel important and even if they're complaining ... you have to listen and try to understand their problem.”

        Ms. Stubbendick noted that small businesses actually have an advantage because “they can work one-on-one with customers to build that loyalty and build that trust.”

        “If the small business owner can create extras to make the customer feel they're truly appreciated ... it will help tremendously and establish strong relations,” she said.


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