Waking From the Nightmare: Seven Steps to Take After a Kerfuffle

By Andrew McCoy and Fred Sargent | Oct 15, 2018
Waking from the Nightmare




“This place looks like a dump!” bellowed Larry, a service electrician, as he opened the door to his customer’s electrical equipment room. He should have closed the door behind him before blurting out his assessment of the customer’s housekeeping in an area of the building few people ever see. Someone from the customer’s office staff, however, happened to be down the hall.

Taking great umbrage at Larry’s remark, he immediately ran to tell his manager about it. Without hesitation, the manager called Larry’s boss and went on a tirade.

As customer relations nightmares go, this was a low-impact example. However, no matter where it fits on a scale of severity, a customer relations problem deserves correction. The need to address the problem goes back to conventional wisdom that the essence of being in business is finding customers and keeping them.

With that customer-retention concept in mind, here are seven steps to consider in the wake of most customer relations “nightmares.”

  • No. 1: Apologize immediately. Listen to what the customer has to say. Ask what you can do to make things right for them. Promise to follow up.
  • No. 2: Investigate. Gather the apparent facts of the situation. Better yet, look for hidden factors lurking beneath the surface.
  • No. 3: Take complete ownership of the problem. Make sure everyone knows that you will be tracking it until its final resolution.
  • No. 4: Follow up with the customer in an appropriately timely manner. Some situations deserve answers within minutes. Some responses can wait. Judge accordingly.
  • No. 5: Choose an appropriate means of communication. Err on the side of being personable. Since it may take several tries to connect, be sensitive to avoid appearance of dodging a customer.
  • No. 6: If you offer some sort of compensation, such as a “refund,” structure it to contemplate the next transaction with the customer, not so it ends up being the last transaction with them.
  • No. 7: Recognize the stakes. Years ago, business gurus opined that an unhappy customer might spread the word of his or her dissatisfaction to 17 or 18 other would-be customers. Think about how that number has jumped thanks to the power of social media!

If you think that your company does not have potential customer relationship nightmares in your service operations, you’re asleep on the job. Customer relationship issues are inevitable. They beset every company. The best-performing service organizations, however, are the ones which face up to such challenges in a supremely professional manner.

That kind of professionalism takes into account that the ostensible source of a customer’s complaint may not be the real reason behind it. Revisit the story of Larry and his loud-mouthed, but relatively harmless, offense. Imagine a subplot in which the person who snitched on him was motivated by racial prejudice. In a different scenario, the precipitating factor could have been a remark that Larry had made in a knee-jerk reaction to being criticized.

That brings us to what we could call the “zeroth” step for the list above, because it ought to be put in place before a customer relationship catastrophe has a chance to occur. Service electricians have to recognize and respect the responsibilities they have as the most important customer-facing persons in the company. To the eyes (and ears) of the customer, service electricians are the company that employs them.

Customers may never meet the owner or president. They may occasionally even forget the name of the company and simply say, “We’d better call Larry.”

So, as a zeroth step, service managers have to instill in their service teams the importance of their role in the critical connection between two companies—the contractor and the customer. Service managers easily understand the need for periodic safety meetings about preventing workplace hazards.

They should devote a corresponding amount of attention in all-hands meetings to preventing what can be hazardous to customer relationships.

About The Author

MCCOY is Beliveau professor in the Dept. of Building Construction, associate director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and director of the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech. Contact him at [email protected].


SARGENT is president of Great Service Forums, provider of management education for service managers. Contact him at [email protected].

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