Tips for small business and entrepreneurs: the right customer service when things go wrong

Ross wrote a short post the other day about a funny customer service request we received  and mentioned that we have handled well over 100,000 customer service contacts since we launched less than 3 year ago. I looked at that number and my jaw dropped; I know intellectually that we handle a huge volume of support requests, but as we answer our users questions, respond to their problems, thank them for their suggestions, and fix the bugs they report, we don’t think much about how many of these we actually answer, solve, implement and fix. It’s kind of like aging, one day you turn around and your kids are in college and you’re another decade older. How does that happen without you even being aware that it is happening? Same with customer service: the requests come in, you deal with them one-by-one and the next thing you know you’ve done 100,000. Wow.

We are (of course) huge proponents of great customer service and we strive every day to provide a world-class level of support to our users. We make ourselves available 7 days a week, we celebrate the quick response, and we endeavor to solve all requests within 24 hours. And we’ve gotten pretty good at it: we are proud that  our average response time is under an hour, and we solve over 80% of requests in under a day. To us great customer service is part of a great user experience, and more than that, we view it as a marketing strategy: great support engenders great word of mouth, and W.O.M. leads to more customers. A virtuous cycle if ever there was.

Not every customer who contacts us is an easy customer. For every whimsical contact that we receive about apples, we get ten more from folks who are upset, angry, vexed, annoyed, indignant, or irritated: the site isn’t performing to their standards; a problem is not being resolved fast enough; a credit card was overcharged; or another user has posted a rude comment. The true art of customer service is not in how you handle someone who gets in touch to have a little fun on the topic of fruit, but in how you handle a seriously upset customer with a real issue. The kind of issue that ties your stomach in knots and that leads to holding phone 10 inches away away to protect your eardrum, or (please Lord, no) an email written in ALL CAPS with crazy punctuation!!??

Here are a few tips for dealing with the these most difficult of customers; some of these are relevant to everyday run-of-the-mill contacts, but for the most exasperating support requests, these 9 tips may be particularly helpful:

1. Know a difficult customer when you see one. Then pounce.

Watch for the signs: profanity, sarcasm, and overt anger are pretty easy to spot but sometimes an upset customer might not be so immediately evident. Watch for keywords like “payment,” “issue,” “problem,” “bug,” or “slow” as these can be good signs that a support request has the potential to escalate. Once you know which they are, make sure that these appeals are not allowed to languish; you should be sure that the most difficult requests move straight to the top of the queue. A happy customer tends to be much more patient than an unhappy one, so deal with those unhappy folks first, ok?

2. Stay on the lookout. Everywhere.

Great customer service can happen anywhere, anytime, but only if you are aware that there is a customer who needs help. The trick is to keep your finger on the pulse and we do this monitoring in several important ways: 1) we make support easily accessible via an obvious “contact us” link at the top of every page, a crowdSPRING user account to which users can easily send us a message, and a chat feature available on certain key pages on the site; 2) We monitor social media for angry customers by using search terms in Twitter, carefully observing your Facebook feed, and making LinkedIn and other services available as contact methods for our users; 3) Watch the blogs and message boards for people expressing their dissatisfaction. Google alerts is a great tool for watching the web for random mentions and comments – set up search terms with your company name and be sure to watch the results closely for trouble.

3. In customer service, it is the hare who wins the race.

In the ancient fable, it is the slow, steady tortoise who wins the race, but in customer service it is the fast response that wins the hearts. People like to know that someone is paying attention and the faster your response, the stronger the message that you are doing just that. Difficult customers especially are time-sensitive and an immediate response will go far to reduce their angst.

4. Get personal.

When we view another person as an object it is easy to treat them rudely and to express anger in ways we would never express it in person. For this reason, it is critical that you find ways to let that demanding customer know that it is a human being they’re talking to and not an auto-responding robot or an AI powered internet machine. Customize your responses, be careful with the overuse of boilerplate language, and (maybe most important) tell them your name and ask for theirs. It’s harder to yell at a guy when you know his name is Kevin than it is when he’s just another nameless, faceless agent.

5. The spoken voice is better than the written word.

Given a choice between speaking with a customer in person or via email, always go for the voice. When you are working to defuse a “situation” you will be much more effective if you can let the other person not just understand what you are saying but, literally, hear what you are saying. A great writer can craft a fantastic response, but nothing beats having a human being to speak to when a customer is upset.

6. Give ’em what they want.

At the end of the day, the best way to turn an angry customer around is, simply to give them what they are asking for. If it is a refund they want, give them the money back; if it is an apology they’re after, well than say sorry (and mean it); and if they want you to just admit that you were wrong and they were right, well go on and do just that. At the end of the day an unhappy customer can do damage to your company and its reputation that is far more expensive than that refund.

7. Tell the truth and be accurate.

Please be honest – if it is your site that is broken, say so; if it was your mistake that led to the customer’s distress, ‘fess up; and if you don’t know the answer, simply say that you don’t and tell them that you will find out quickly and get back to them ASAP. People appreciate transparency, but even more so they appreciate humility and a healthy dose of both will often help to calm a tense user and build the trust you need to find a great resolution.

8. Say please. Also say thank you..

I wrote a post last year about the importance of being polite and there is no context where it is more important than in customer service. So, no matter the voice volume, no matter the oaths, no matter the expletives and curses directed your way, please, please, please stay polite, be civil, and maintain equanimity. Probably nothing is more difficult to do, but certainly nothing you do is more important when dealing with that pissed-off customer.

9. Start with an “I’m sorry” and end with a “much obliged.”

The structure of a good response is almost as important as the content of that response. Here’s what I mean: a great customer service response to a difficult request should always begin with an apology and end with an expression of gratitude. So to start off try something like, “Thanks for getting in touch and so sorry to hear that you ran into this issue,” or “Hello, first let me apologize for the difficulty you are experiencing.” Simple introductions like that acknowledge the customer’s pain, send a message that you care, and cut right to the problem you are working to resolve. It sets a mood of respect and let’s the customer know you care about their predicament. Equally important is the sign-off: ending with an apology can serve to remind the customer that their problem may not yet be resolved or that they were angry in the first place. Use the last statement to thank them for getting in touch – let them know that, in spite of the fact that they had a problem with your company, you still appreciate them and appreciate that they got in touch.

So everyone, thanks for reading my post, and do let us know if you run into any problems or have any questions! And please leave a comment to let us know abut ways you have learned to deal with those most taxing of customers.

Photo: What What