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Are you handling customers, or mishandling them?

Why do so many of our companies not know how to handle customers? Why do most of us fail in this elementary test of business?

Imagine a customer lodges a complaint about your business somewhere: comes in person, calls, emails, tweets, messages, posts an update on Facebook – whatever. Here are the typical responses.

First: ignore. Pretend it never happened. Look the other way. Don’t reply. Don’t engage. Let the complainer give up and go away. There are plenty more where he or she came from.

If that doesn’t work, move on to ploy number 2: deny. Don’t admit fault, let alone responsibility or liability. Point the customer to the terms and conditions. Hint that this problem is actually the customer’s doing, not yours.

If that doesn’t shut the customer up, move on to response number 3: argue. Engage in a long debating match with the complainer. Score points. Show these people that you know they are out to defraud your company.

Finally, level 4: insult. Shout and call them names. Tell them to go to hell. Call the security guards. Show them to the door.

I trust you have never reached level 4 in the sequence above (though I’m not so sure; I see it happen often enough), but I’m pretty sure you have dabbled with responses 1-3 quite often. May I just quietly point out that those three are just as stupid and short-sighted as response 4?

Why are we like this? We don’t seem to grasp that the entire point of a business is to have committed, happy, bonded customers. Too many of us view customers as necessary evils in the operation of a business. We think business would be so easy, if only these irritants would stop complaining.

No, and no. If customers are complaining all the time, you don’t have a business. You are failing. You have not created a product, an experience, a proposition that has value in the marketplace. Your demise is assured; only the date of the burial is in question.

Customer happiness is the single most important measure of business success. Not revenue, or profitability, or shareholder returns. All those can be spectacular in the short-term, but they will wither away if the customer proposition is a hoax.

Once you understand that, you will focus all your energy and that of your people in keeping customers happy, and resolving their issues quickly and fairly.

So here’s the wise person’s response sequence to customer complaints. First, apologize. Say sorry. Don’t worry about whose fault it actually is for now: just express genuine regret that the customer feels let down. This step is not optional.

Second: address. Look carefully (but quickly) at what happened. If your company has indeed wronged or misled or let down this customer, accept fault: replace the product, offer compensation or assurance it won’t happen again. Move beyond mere words. Prove that you mean it.

Third: learn. Take time to understand where things are going wrong. Look for persistent trends in the feedback. Connect the dots. Isolate the causes. Fix the problems. It could be your product, your people, your processes, your systems, or your leadership that is at fault. Whatever it is: fix it.

The first sequence (ignore-deny-argue-abuse) is the foolish one. The second (apologize-address-learn) is that practiced by folks who understand the true underpinnings of business success. Which one does your organization follow?

Long-lasting success in business comes from intangibles. The most important intangible is your emotional relationship with your customers, who must trust you to help them in their lives. What does the first sequence do? Destroy trust. And once trust is gone, your relationship with your customers is reduced to a mere transaction. Those customers will dump you without further thought when a better transaction appears.

Give that some thought the next time a complaint bleeps up.

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