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When You Make a Mistake in Business

Addressing customer service shortcomings fully is important to your success

Because mistakes will happen it is important to prepare how you will handle it.

Mistakes happen.  In Molly Gordon’s book The Accidental Entrepreneur she writes of circus performers who while attempting amazing acts on the high wire or trapeze occasionally make mistakes.  What do they do when this happens?  They take enormous, gregarious bows!  And what does the audience typically do?  They applaud. There are many reasons people applaud, one of which is that people want to recognize someone’s good efforts, even if they fail. We allow for people to goof up when we know that they have tried their best. 

But unlike being a performer at the circus, when we make a mistake in our business that directly impacts our customers an ebullient bow would be inappropriate. Instead, we have to deal with our mistake.

In a time where consumers have a plethora of choices, good service is a must. Clearly aiming for quality work in all of our business dealings is the goal.  But when mistakes happen or things go awry with a customer we must not assume that all is lost.  Rather, it is how we deal with the shortcoming that determines the long-term effect (I think it is “effect” here)on our business and customer relationships.
Here are 6 steps for handling situations when you do not make your mark with a customer.

1.     Apologize without making excuses. This can be tricky.  While most know that saying you are sorry is important, there is a strong need to justify or explain why something happened. Excessive explanations actually diminish your apology. Therefore simply apologize and leave it at that. 

2.     Validate your customer’s feeling. When mistakes happen it is understandable that our customers will most likely feel unhappy. They may even feel frustrated or angry. Acknowledging these feelings can go a long way in mending the problem and saving the relationship.  Saying (and meaning it) something like, “I can certainly see how this can be frustrating to you” can begin the mending process.

3.    Fix the problem. Most problems can be fixed.  Believing that there is a solution and then working to implement that solution is a must.  If you are behind on a deadline, work overtime until it is done.  If you ordered the wrong merchandise, reorder the correct item and pay for overnight delivery.  If you underperformed a task, take the necessary action to make it right. Do your very best to fix the problem. 

4.    Compensate them for the hassle.   Even if you fix the problem, don’t neglect the wear and tear of the problem itself.  I had my car washed once and when I got home I discovered that the job was done poorly.  I called the carwash company and they told me to come back and they would fix the problem. I returned and they wiped down the spots they missed but did not offer any compensation for my trouble and frustration to   return.  In this case, fixing the problem was not enough. 

5.    Thank people for giving you critical feedback. Because most unhappy customers do not share their complaints with you (but with their friends), anytime you are made aware of a problem it is a good thing. Tell your customers that you are pleased to know how you missed the mark with them.  Then use the opportunity to assure it doesn’t happen again.

6.    Seize this opportunity to show people what you made of. Businesses are built on relationships. In the end, it is how you handle the problem more than the problem itself. Working to save a relationship is a valid business goal, just as valid as saving a dollar. 

Because mistakes will happen it is important to prepare how you will handle it. A sign of your overall business’s character will be reflected in how you “clean up your mess.” And remember, people who are treated well, respected for their valid complaints and ultimately leave with their needs met will most likely return to do business another day….and maybe bring others with them.