How to Repair Customer Relationships While Fixing Problems in 3 Basic Steps (Marketing Profs)

No one likes to hear complaints and gripes about a relationship—especially in business—but they are inevitable. In the keynote for the MarketingProfs B2B Forum 2011, speaker Guy Winch discusses the art of an apology and how to turn them into opportunities for healing (and strengthening) the business relationship. 

To repair a relationship with a customer, the psychologist and author of “The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem” suggests the following three steps. 

Know how to say you’re sorry. The most crucial first step in initiating the conversation with a complaining customer is to listen. Really listen. “Don’t tell them,” Guy advises. “Let them tell you. Be sure to ask the open-ended questions. ‘Is there anything we could be doing better?’ They will then feel less put on the spot and more likely to tell you.” 

That means holding off on the apology until the person is done sharing the complaint. You may want to interrupt, rein in a rambling conversation, and just get to the apology to move everything along … but don’t. It’s a bad idea to cut someone off—especially when that person is already ticked and hasn’t had a chance to vent. “Until the customer has finished explaining what went wrong, any apology that you give cannot sound authentic,” Winch says. “That’s because you don’t know what went wrong.” 

And when you’re saying “I’m sorry,” but sure to add a healthy dose of validation. Validation doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they said nor does it mean that you did something wrong. It just means that you get how they feel. You understand where they are coming from. “Effective apologies must include emotional validation,” says Winch. “When you validate someone’s experience and get it right, you can literally see the tension leave their body. It has soothing powers that are practically magical.” So, convey an understanding of what happened. 

Communicate how you’re going to fix the problem. The best way to repair trust with your customer is to let them know what you’re going to do about the problem … and then do it. “First promise then deliver repeatedly,” says Winch. “You need to build a body of proof to demonstrate your trustworthiness … and you build up that trust layer by layer.” 

Make sure you promise what you can deliver. And, if for some reason, you are limited in how you can resolve the problem, be honest about it. Explain and apologize for the limitations. 

So, tell your customer what you’re going to do, let them know when you’re going to get that done (and if you can include dates for the different steps involved, even better), and get feedback about your proposed solution. 

Follow up. Most importantly, however, is to keep communication open throughout the process. You don’t want them to sit around, wondering if you’re doing anything at all, if you’ve forgotten all about their issues … It just leads to unrest and frustration. Notify your customer each time that you deliver on a promise or keep to the time frame that you established. “But don’t pat yourself on the back,” Winch warns. “You don’t get a reward for fixing things.” 

The goal of any business apology, Winch says, is to handle the customer while also handling the problem. By taking the time and energy to initiate an open, honest conversation with squeaky wheels, you can begin to view them not as inconveniences but as opportunities to better the company.

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