Running a business often demands that business leaders be good at everything, or at least a little of everything. It’s asking a lot of those in charge and, inevitably, the places where things go awry are often in areas where company leaders lack expertise or resources. Businesses also consist of humans and humans make mistakes. Considering these factors and despite control measures to avoid it, your company is going to goof up—maybe badly—with its customers, employees or vendors.
What took years to build can be damaged in a day, or even minutes. If you’re lucky you’ll have a chance to build back from the mistake, regain trust and move forward. But luck isn’t a horseshoe over your building’s front door or fingers crossed when your team goes out to connect with customers.
The luck you’ll need if your company makes a mistake starts with a plan. A big plan. A crisis communication plan. Even if your company isn’t likely to be involved in a loss of life or large sums of money (or puppies sold on the black market), be ready—proactive—with your relationship management. We like relationship management rather than reputation management because, although it is your company and that matters, you should be thinking about who was affected by your mistake more than worrying about people saying bad things about you.
You may be like many companies who have crisis communications plans, your plan is for not-probable use, with its structure set for use reactively rather than proactively. You’re not alone. According to software service Capterra, fewer than half of U.S. businesses can say that they are adequately prepared to communicate during a crisis. Again, you may not expect a cyber-attack that compromises your customers’ data, or a sales snafu that derails an entire product line, but you should plan for it.
As the skateboarders used to say about falls, “It’s not if, it’s when and how bad.”
Start your “oops” plan with a list. On that list have a rapid response team to monitor for information failures 24/7 and create centralized point for information —usually a website — for the most up-to-date information your employees, vendors or customers need. Decide which senior team member (you, if it’s your company) will communicate and address all issues and speak to all audiences point by point.
Have a list of where your customers, employees and vendors are on media and be ready to meet them there. Are they consumers of traditional media, social media or both? What owned platforms (again, a dedicated webpage if the mistake is sizable) can you use to reach those affected? What internal message systems and channels will you use?
As highlighted in this Forbes article on building a crisis communication plan, plan to go through the mistake. You could be the victim, but you might be the villain. Be ready to deal with it.
Own Up to Your Mistake
Whether your company or employee has wronged a single customer, or there is a larger breach in company etiquette that involves a larger segment of your customer base, the first order of business after a mistake is to own up to it. Arguing with an unhappy customer or trying to defend yourself when you are wrong is only going to increase animosity. In a world of social media (and depending on the customer) bad things can get worse—even if you do the ethical and courageous thing. It only takes one bad tag on social media, or an alert to the media of your mistake, and suddenly others you value think you can’t be trusted.
(Owning the mistake can be tough, but do it whether it’s a big mistake or a small one. Your legal team may tell you to admit to nothing, but if you have to pull in legal forces, your mistake may be on a scale we can’t advise on.)
Sometimes factors out of your control are the reason it appears that your team or your leadership made an error in judgment. Issues with the weather and issues in the supply chain could have resulted in your product not being ready for customers. Still own up to the mistake. Keep track of the type of mistakes that happen, if they have a pattern, and whether they’re possible to predict. Work to fix these issues with business partners and suppliers, but don’t expect a customer to chase down your process.
Find Out What the Customer Needs
If your mistake affected customers, find out what they need. It could be they need replacement products or additional or improved services. Maybe all they want/need is an ear to hear them out and a discount on future purchases. Know what the customers affected by your mistake need. If it’s not clear, ask them.
Meanwhile, audit your own process and training protocols to see if there are training issues that might be corrected going forward. At times, there may be very little you are doing “wrong”, but you may find that customers simply need a little more care in their interactions. Ultimately, it’s important to be patient and understanding, as well as prepared to have a difficult conversation and use active listening.
Nurture the Relationship
You might implement automated satisfaction surveys and customer service follow-ups to gain a better understanding of what your customers need, but don’t dismiss the power of a personal email, call or in-person visit. Make sure your customers feel heard and show that you and your business are dedicated to receiving feedback and are open to opportunities for growth.
For those customers who don’t like direct conversation after a conflict, offer the opportunity to submit a review online. It can be an effective way to allow customers to be heard in a way that’s clearly documented. You can provide a remedy or to simply thank them for their feedback and let them know you will adjust so similar mistakes are avoided. Reiterating that your primary goal is to go above and beyond to meet customer satisfaction is another reassuring way to support your customer and show you value your two-way relationship.
Recommit to Being Better
Whether you have made an actual mistake or have just missed an opportunity to understand your customers and do things a little better than your competition, it is always a good idea to look at your business from your customers’ point of view and consider what else you can offer and how you can better serve them. Communication is usually the key. Holding raffles, offering surveys regarding customer satisfaction, and giving out coupons or temporary price breaks are all attention-getting ways to acknowledge your customers, but often a forthright apology and asking how you can make it better is all that’s needed to build back trust. This is true for employees and vendors, as well as customers.
Build Brand Loyalty
If you’ve built solid brand loyalty through your services and products, it’s easier to build back trust if its damaged. If you haven’t already, start to build that loyalty. We don’t mean just “reward” price breaks. (Buy 10 and get the 11th free!) From thank you notes to anticipated needs with product recommendations and incentives tailored specifically for your customers’’ businesses, trust and loyalty are built on relationship.
Pay attention. Be proactive with your efforts to understand your customers and you can position your brand as one that has value and can be believed. When a mistake does happen, your customers will trust that you will have a responsible and timely solution.
Whether it’s a big mistake that puts you in front of media cameras and angry customers, or a small goof-up with a vendor, be ready. Make your crisis communications plan and know how you’ll build back.
Remember the skateboarders: “It’s not if, it’s when and how bad.” Be ready.
Frequently Asked Questions
A crisis communication plan is crucial because mistakes and issues can damage a company’s reputation quickly, and having a plan in place allows for a proactive and timely response.
A crisis communication plan should include a rapid response team, a centralized information point (such as a website), identification of media channels and platforms used by customers and stakeholders, and a designated spokesperson to address issues.
The first step is to own up to the mistake and take responsibility. It is important to listen to the affected parties, understand their needs, and offer appropriate solutions or remedies.
Companies should communicate with the affected customers directly and ask them about their needs and expectations. Active listening and open dialogue are key.
Companies can nurture the relationship by implementing personalized communication, such as emails, calls, or in-person visits. Additionally, offering opportunities for feedback, such as online reviews, and demonstrating a commitment to improvement are important.
To rebuild trust and loyalty, a company should focus on understanding its customers’ needs, providing exceptional service, and being proactive in addressing any issues. Building a strong brand identity and maintaining consistent communication also contribute to rebuilding trust.
Companies should continually evaluate their processes, training protocols, and customer interactions to identify areas for improvement. Implementing customer satisfaction surveys, feedback mechanisms, and being open to change are effective ways to stay prepared.
Brand loyalty provides a foundation of trust and credibility with customers. When a mistake occurs, customers are more likely to give the company the benefit of the doubt and believe in their efforts to rectify the situation.
Building brand loyalty requires understanding and meeting customer needs, offering personalized experiences, and maintaining open lines of communication. Providing value, anticipating customer needs, and fostering long-term relationships contribute to brand loyalty.
Being proactive demonstrates a commitment to customers, employees, and stakeholders. It helps in mitigating potential damages and shows that the company takes responsibility and is actively working towards resolving the situation.