A customer complaint might be a far cry from a true crisis, but it’s interesting how much they have in common. 

Let’s start with a brief explanation of how to handle a complaint. I’ve been preaching throughout my career that whenever a customer has a complaint, the goal is to not only fix the problem but also to restore confidence. 

The only reason a customer chooses to do business with you again is that they have confidence that you can deliver. And, if they have a complaint that is resolved to their satisfaction, they must also be confident that it won’t happen again.

There is a five-step process to handling a complaint:

  1. Acknowledge the problem. For example, you may say something as simple as, “I can understand why you would be upset. If that happened to me, I would be as well.” You’re letting the customer know you are hearing him/her.
  2. Apologize for the problem. This is simple. Say you’re sorry. You can add to the acknowledgment statement, “And, I want to apologize that this (situation, problem, issue) has happened.” By the way, you can reverse No. 1 and No. 2. The idea is that you acknowledge and apologize. It doesn’t matter what order.
  3. Fix the problem. Resolve the issue, or discuss what the process is to resolve the issue. This must happen right away. The customer wants to know that you are ready, willing and able to take care of whatever the complaint is.
  4. Have the right attitude. This is important. You must have a positive attitude about taking care of the problem as well as an attitude of accountability. That means you own the problem. It may not be your fault, but it’s now found its way to you. In other words, you don’t say something like, “This happened last week. I was on vacation and had nothing to do with the problem.” By the way, this is defensive behavior. Yes, you may hand it off to someone else, but the way you do so should create confidence for the customer. You are taking the position that regardless of who’s at fault or when it happened, you now have the opportunity to help the customer.
  5. Act with urgency. And the final confidence-building step of this process is to act with a sense of urgency. The goal is to take care of the problem as quickly as possible.

These five steps are a good start to helping you restore the customer’s confidence when there is a complaint. And, as already mentioned, these steps can help in a crisis situation.

Related Article: Improve Your Online Reputation By Listening to Customers

Applying the 5-Step Process to a Real Crisis

So, let’s differentiate a complaint from a crisis. Yes, to some customers, their complaints may seem like a crisis, but I’m talking about a real crisis. A company may have bad news that can impact its stock price, customers, etc. It may be so bad that the company has to hire a crisis management PR firm or expert. I’ll give you an example.

Several years ago I had the incredible honor of taking over as president of the National Speakers Association, or as our membership refers to us, the NSA (same initials as the National Security Agency — but they are the people who listen. We are the ones who talk!) At the time the gavel was passed to me, it was also announced to the almost 2,000 participants at our annual meeting that we were changing the name of our association. When the announcement was made, you could have heard a pin drop. 

No applause. Definitely not the positive response we had hoped for after the board of directors spent more than two years working on the concept of not just our name, but the future positioning of our beloved association.  

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Within the day the hundreds of emails started coming in. Members were outraged that we would change the name of our association, or that we as a board of directors didn’t ask the members for their opinions. We were risking the mutiny of a major percentage of our membership.

So, we moved into crisis mode. We quickly released a video to the membership that covered the following:

  1. Acknowledgment: We acknowledged that based on the overwhelmingly negative sentiment related to the rebranding, it was obvious we had a problem.
  2. Apologize: We apologized that it was happening.
  3. The fix: I asked the membership to stop emailing us so that we could focus on the resolution versus answering hundreds of emails. I assured them this was of the utmost importance.
  4. Attitude: There was no doubt that we were ready and willing to deal with this situation head-on. As a board, we accepted responsibility and we would be working tirelessly to fix what appeared to be broken.
  5. Urgency: I promised that we would contact the membership within just a few days with an update as to the progress we were making. 

Once that video was sent to the membership, the emails stopped. A second video came out a few days later sharing our progress, and a third video less than two weeks after the original announcement shared that the board would repeal the name change and consider a future process that was more inclusive of the membership. 

Within minutes we were receiving accolades from our membership regarding the swift and conscientious way we handled the crisis. 

Obviously, there were many more details to this story, but they aren’t important to make the point. What is important is that we used the five-step formula, and it worked to turn angry constituents into raving fans. 

Related Article: What Is Customer Loyalty and Retention (And 3 Tips for Improvement)