Retaining customers and generating repeat sales is both cheaper than acquiring new customers and is absolutely vital to the success of your business – especially in the current economy, where scores of businesses are competing for the same consumer dollars.
But no matter how well-intentioned you and your staff are, at some point or another, mistakes will be made, products will be out of stock, poor service will occur, or even something beyond your control but all of which produce the same result: an unhappy customer.
What you may not realize is that it’s often not the problem or shortcoming itself that results in a lost customer – not to mention the damage to your reputation as they share all the gory details (and more) with their friends and family, on social media, and by way of bad ratings and reviews left for your business as they look for ways to vent all of those negative emotions. Often it is not the shortcoming or poor product or service that does all this damage – it’s how your business responds.
Sometimes unhappy customers leave your store or clientele without telling you first or without telling you why. You may not have an opportunity to fix the problem before they leave and it might even be a while before you realize that they are gone.
Other times customers do give you the opportunity to rectify a situation before they walk – and these are the critical moments when every action you take and even all of your words really count.
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Preparing for these moments ahead of time can make all the difference.
Do your staff know what to do when confronted by an unhappy – or even a very angry – customer?
To better prepare them to deal with upset customers before it even happens:
- Put your money where your mission statement is. How many businesses that claim that they provide exceptional customer service or that customer satisfaction is their #1 priority? If this applies to your business, then your policies should reflect that, including policies relating to returns, complaints and customer communications. And if this is your business, then you should be investing in communications and other skills training and education for your employees.
- Develop a policy and a protocol. Every employee should know who to call for help (or where to direct a customer) when confronted with an unhappy customer, complaint or return.
- Empower your employees. Every employee should know the next step they can take to either remedy the situation themselves or get the customer connected with someone who can.
- Practice. It can be upsetting for your employees to be confronted by an upset customer in the heat of the moment. Take time not only to train your employees in the policy, protocol and to know what they can do to resolve customer complaints, but also take time to practice, role play and conduct employee training to ensure employees have the tools they need.
- Show empathy, but don’t take it personally. When customers are dissatisfied, sometimes even for what might be minor reasons, they can be very stressed and upset as a result. Sometimes they are already stressed or upset by other things in their lives, so that minor upsets at your business result in an over-reaction. Sometimes it’s not really about you, your business, or the problem that occurred. Even if you are on the receiving end of what you consider to be an over-reaction, listen. Show empathy. Be sympathetic. Keep the big picture in mind.
But preparing staff to handle unhappy customers and complaints is only one way to head off problems before they occur. You can also:
- Establish a formal feedback, suggestion or complaint communications system.
- Ask questions about customer satisfaction (and track responses) at the point of sale.
- Follow up after customer interactions with online or printed surveys.
- Periodically conduct surveys and polls.
- Use social media to solicit suggestions or ideas for improvements or to get an idea of how your clients tastes and preferences are evolving.
- Plan to create and use focus groups to analyze various areas of your business or customer touch points.
- Create a continuous improvement system and incentives for employees within your business.
- Reward and acknowledge employees who embody the idea of exceptional customer service.
And what about those clients who left without telling you why or giving you a chance to resolve the situation?
- As soon as you become aware that you have lost a customer, reach out. Email, call or send a note saying that you miss them and opening the door for a response – even if they will be telling you something you don’t want to hear.
- Send an email or printed survey to ask if they would be willing to share their reasons for leaving or why they chose the products or services of a competitor’s over yours.
- Track desertions and look for trends that would point to problems in your products, services, individual staff members (or departments) or processes.
It costs exponentially more in time, resources and life energy to acquire new customers than it will to practice any and all of these customer retention strategies (not to mention the fact that happy customers will be your best source of referrals for new customers!) Remember that it’s not the problem itself, but how you react and resolve the problem (or fail to do the same) that will result in a lost customer and a damaged reputation. Invest in the success of your business – take the steps you need to in order to deal with (or diffuse) customer dissatisfaction before it even occurs.