This is a guest post from Zeke Michael
It’s not easy to admit mistakes. In a litigious age like ours, it can even get you into trouble.
But businesses, like people, sometimes goof. They make bad decisions, or someone on staff simply isn’t thinking. Maybe the negligence of a supplier results in a customer receiving a bad product.
Once the customer is involved, the company must make several decisions. As the owner or manager of the company, you are its face and voice. What level of responsibility are you willing to take for your customer’s dissatisfaction? Is it a fairly simple problem you can resolve yourself, or will you need legal advice? If you feel the customer also shares the blame, should you admit that?
How an organization handles these situations says a lot about the people who run it. A defensive, uncooperative approach to a customer’s complaint virtually guarantees lost business. Even if you eventually manage to satisfy your patron, you have created an indelible impression in that person’s mind. He or she now sees your company as a troubled operation, one incapable of flexibility, collaboration, and basic humility.
You don’t have to adopt the slogan the public now wields like a handgun in the face of many business owners: “The customer is always right.” That kind of hard-and-fast generalization is bound to be wrong some of the time. In fact, customers occasionally are completely mistaken. They accuse companies of practices and incompetence not remotely related to reality. But how your firm deals with these types of people also reflects your professionalism.
Sometimes it’s enough to tell customers that you’re sorry for the circumstances. That you regret they’ve been put in an inconvenient or unpleasant situation. In other words, you can apologize for the conditions without taking ownership of them.
Here’s an example. The battery in my wife’s car recently died, and we took it to our local dealer to have it replaced. About a month later, the “new” battery conked out. I called for another service appointment and was told I’d have to wait four days. We needed the car before that, so we took it to another mechanic and had it repaired and returned the same day.
After telling me the battery from the dealer was junk, the mechanic installed another one. He gave me the dealer’s battery and suggested I return it. I stewed in frustration for a couple of weeks and finally e-mailed the dealer to explain the circumstances.
In his response, the service supervisor said he was “confused” about the follow-up appointment we had made but forgot to cancel. He claimed that I had not really described the problem accurately when I scheduled the follow-up, and said that oversight was probably the reason I was told it would take so long. He did admit, however, he was “surprised” I was told it would take several days.
The resolution? I returned the dud battery to the dealer’s parts department, and they reimbursed me for the cost of the battery, which was about half of what we paid initially.
I felt fortunate we recovered what we did.
Twice the dealer told us that if we had just brought the car back in for a second battery, they could have easily exchanged it, implying that they would have done it for no charge.
I felt like we had done something wrong. Like we should have known better. Like somehow we had our chance and blew it.
And not once during this whole experience did anyone at the dealer apologize for the situation, or for the company selling us a defective battery. A simple “Gee, we’re sorry this happened” would have meant something, even if the company never confessed the battery was worthless.
The dealer most likely was not responsible for the bad battery. They received it from the company’s mother ship, so to speak. But they did bear some responsibility for the situation. It was one I probably would not have gone through at another dealer. They could have silently acknowledged that and made some effort (a future discount, etc.) to keep me as a customer. Instead, they lost me forever. Now I wouldn’t let them work on the car if it died on their lot.
So don’t be afraid to say you’re sorry, even if you think the blame doesn’t lay solely with you or your company. You’re not admitting weakness; you’re projecting strength. You’re showing you run a business that knows how to handle challenges. That yours is an operation that skillfully addresses problems. And most important, you’re proving that you and your company know how to work with, and keep, customers.