It’s Not What You Do: Resolving Customer Issues to Create Loyalty and Inspire Enthusiasm

customerservcomplaintDid you know that customers are more loyal and enthusiastic after a problem happens than before one happens in the first place? Study after study proves this is true, so it a great reminder that how we handle customer issues, and not just what we do to resolve them, matters if we are going to move a customer from frustrated to enthusiastic. Customers that have had a problem are better customers if we are better com companies and employees in how we respond to customer opportunities.

One recent night after a long day of work in Los Angeles, I pulled into a fast food drive through and ordered a grilled chicken sandwich. After receiving my order and heading home, I decided to check the bag to make sure the order was right. I opened the sandwich box to discover that I only had half a sandwich, and it looked as if someone had eaten the other half. I drove back to the store, asked for the manager and told him what had happened. He said that he couldn’t believe something like this could happen, and he offered me no replacement or compensation. I told him that I felt that I deserved a new sandwich. He got a new sandwich, handed it to me, and said, “Here.” I told him that I would like some fries too, and he walked over to the cash register to charge me for the fries.

Now I have a question for you. Did he resolve my problem? Yes, he technically and legally did. I paid for a whole sandwich, I received half of a sandwich, and I left with a whole one. But it did not feel resolved—not because of what he did to solve my problem but how he did it. When it comes to resolving customer problems, feelings are what matter.

Always remember this: If you fix someone’s problem, but you don’t acknowledge their feelings about that problem, they do not feel that the problem has been resolved. Apologizing and fixing the problem are not enough to generate enthusiastic customers who feel that we care.

Let me share with you how to resolve a customer issue in seven steps that results in improved customer satisfaction and even enthusiasm:

 #1. Greet the customer with a smile. It has been shown that JD Power customer satisfaction scores increase over 20 percent after a problem happens when the customer is greeted with a smile.

#2. Listen to understand. Some customers need to vent to feel understood. Others need to know that you understand the details or why it matters to them. Ask open ended and clarifying questions like “Can you tell me more about that?” Most importantly, don’t interrupt. The same letters are in the word “listen” as in the word “silent.” Let the customer finish their story.

#3. Thank them for their purchase or business. “I am grateful for your business.”

#4. Empathize with the customer’s feelings.

Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone; empathy is feeling sorry with someone. Empathy is much more powerful than sympathy. To empathize, try to understand the customer’s perspective. Then identify the feeling that you would feel if you were in their shoes. Every situation that happens to a customer has a corresponding feeling. The flight is delayed? I’m anxious. The hard drive was erased? I’m devastated. I was charged too much for fuel for my rental car? I’m annoyed.

Now insert that feeling into a statement like “I can see that you are upset.” “I understand that you are angry.” Or “If I were in your situation, I would be confused too.” Be careful of the phrase “I know how you feel.” It tends to generate a negative response. Name a specific feeling.


Apple teaches their Apple Store Genius, a problem resolution employee, how to deal with Customer Challenges this way. Use feel, felt and found statements.

Feel: I can see how you feel that way.

Felt: I felt the price was a bit high too

Found: but I found that it was a real value because of the built in software and capabilities.

#5. Apologize. Notice the order. As we say at SGEi, always empathize before you apologize. An apology that is immediate without empathy sounds like insincere customer service talk. Cliches like “I apologize for your inconvenience” are not heard as sincere. If you empathize first, the apology will sound very different: “I understand that you must feel disrespected because we did not return your call. I apologize.”

If you do not feel that an apology for the product or service is warranted, or the issue was due to the customer’s fault, apologize for the situation but not for the product or service. “I know this is frustrating, and I’m sorry.”

When apologizing, there is no “you” in an apology as in “I’m sorry that you feel this way.” Take ownership. “I’m sorry for the problem.”

When apologizing, don’t add to the apology. Put a period at the end of “I apologize” and don’t elaborate further with “but” or “however” statements. It sounds like an excuse.

If an explanation – not an excuse – would be helpful to the customer, provide one that is not defensive, transparent and honest.

I recently was at a luxury car dealership where I was preparing to speak for my second day there. A car salesman who had been selling cars for 30 years walked into the room with a huge smile on his face and said he wanted to tell me about a customer who had bought a car from him that morning. He had been in my training on the previous day, and he had forgotten that he had made an appointment with a potential customer to show her a car. She arrived, and he was unavailable. She was frustrated, left, and sent him an email saying that he had wasted her time and that she was going to another dealership. He had just heard in my session how to resolve a customer challenge, so he called her on the phone and said, “If I were a customer looking for a car and made an appointment with a sales person about it, and that sales person didn’t show up for the appointment, I would be really frustrated and just go to another dealership too. If you feel that way, I understand. I apologize to you for my forgetfulness.” The next morning, she bought a new car. He came to tell me, “Todd, what you taught us about solving problems works. For 30 years, I would have just apologized to the customer and asked for their business. Yesterday, I understood for the first time that is important to first show them I care and understand their feelings, then tell them what I am going to do.”

#6. Respond with a specific plan and effective resolutions that exceed the customer’s expectations. How do you know what will satisfy the customer? Ask them what will make them feel good about the situation. If they name an option that is not reasonable or possible, provide them two possible options or alternatives, and let them choose. Always tell the customer the plan and which employees will be involved in the resolution.

Do a little more than the customer expects. Put the icing on the cake. This extra touch should rarely be money or reward points. Carry their bags to the room. Escort them to their car. Provide a free soda or drink on the house.

My cousin’s wife Julie recently ordered a pair of shoes from, the company that says it does not deliver just shoes but delivers happiness. The shoes arrived in the mail, but there were two pair. She only paid for one pair, so she called Zappos to let them know of the mistake. The Zappos representative replied, “Can you wear the other pair?” Julie said, “Yes, I actually can.” The representative said, “Well, just keep the other pair.” Julie was satisfied with the response, saving her a trip to the post office and providing her with another pair of shoes. That seemed like the reasonable response. Two weeks later, she received an envelope in the mail that she feared would be the bill for the second pair. She opened the envelope to discover an apology from Zappos for the inconvenience, and a $25 gift certificate for her next order. Julie was wowed. Now how do I know that story? Because she told it around the dining room table at our holiday gathering. Since then, she has purchased more shoes for her family, and I began purchasing my shoes at Zappos too. How we handle customer situations when things go wrong says a lot about our company’s values and will in large part determine whether we will create frustrated, satisfied or happy customers. There is a big gap between satisfied and “wow.”

When creating a resolution, be careful about throwing money or points at the customer to repair the situation. It can cheapen the gesture. The customer just wants to know you care.

#7. Finally, the magic is in the follow up. You may have resolved the situation for the customer already. But want to show them you really care and turn up the good feelings? Follow up within a couple of days or a couple of weeks with a phone call (not an email) to make sure the problem was resolved and to thank the customer for their business.

Ask questions like, “Was this solved to your satisfaction? Is there anything else that I can do to help you feel that we resolved your situation?” Invite the customer back for another visit or purchase.

Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said. They will forget what you did. But they will not forget how you made them feel.” Follow up is what creates the feeling that will turn your customer with a challenge into your happy customer again. Follow up is the mother of second chances.

As I wrote earlier, customers are more loyal and more enthusiastic after a problem happens than before one happens in the first place. So when you encounter a customer today with a challenge, don’t see them or the situation as a problem. Look them in the eye and say to yourself, “This customer is about to become our best customer.” And then make it so.

Todd Bouldin is founder of a customer experience consulting and training group, Todd Bouldin Enterprises, LLC and a consultant with SGEi.






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