The man who has no problems is out of the game.
—Elbert Hubbard, writer, philosopher.
When checking my e-mail one morning, I noticed an urgent subject: “Web Site Down. Call Immediately.” This wasn’t a good sign. I knew then that it was going to be a long day—and it was.
Until that moment, I had never had a customer contact me about a major problem with a product my company created. I didn’t know what to do. No one had told me how to deal with an irate customer. I was learning on the job.
The disgruntled customer was a major media company. Only a year after I started my company, this customer took a chance and bought the first version of our content management system, OmniPublisher. The company used the software to produce the online version of its newspaper. OmniPublisher included web hosting through a third-party vendor, and that was the problem.
Just a few months after the media company purchased our web-based software, I received the fateful e-mail notifying me that the company’s administrative website was down. Apparently, our web hosting partner was having a problem with its servers, preventing our customers from making updates to their site. Even worse, our clients’ readership couldn’t access the clients’ sites. All visitors saw the dreaded and embarrassing Error 404 page.
I immediately contacted the company’s chief technology officer and told him that we were taking care of the situation. I didn’t want to make that call, because I expected a tongue-lashing. It wasn’t so bad after all. He appreciated my swift response to his e-mail but was eager to get the problem resolved. I spent all day putting pressure on the web host to fix their servers. I couldn’t do much else, except wait for the vendor and mitigate the situation with the customer by offering concessions. I was stressed like never before. The web host eventually fixed the servers that evening. As a result, my company made changes to its web host plan and learned a valuable lesson about responding to customer complaints.
Most importantly, we formalized the way we handle urgent, customer complaints. We use this simple five-step process:
- Respond quickly and calmly.
- Listen attentively after you offer a sincere apology.
- Tell the customer how you plan to address the problem in detail with a specific time frame.
- Give updates often on the progress of your resolution.
- When the issue is resolved, make sure the customer is satisfied.
Not only will this process help you to handle similar problems in a professional way, but it will also provide a guideline by which you can evaluate the effectiveness of your response.
To be great in business means to be great at putting out fires quickly. They are inevitable, and one of the biggest fires you’ll have to put out is an urgent customer complaint. Making sure that you resolve customer complaints in the best way possible, so as to ensure that customers stay with your company, should not be something you learn while on the job, if you can help it. Prepare for the fire, and your chances of avoiding a customer conflagration will be much better.