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What Have I Done? What To Do When You've Angered A Customer

Chuck loves bowling. A few years ago he started his own team, the All-City Chuckers. He’s a pretty good bowler and people like him. His teammates depend on his ability to manage and encourage players, and he’s an excellent coach. But Chuck has a strange habit — he likes to carry around the bowling ball between frames. When asked about it, he tells people that carrying the ball increases finger strength. Maybe that’s true; maybe he just thinks it looks cool. But whatever the reason, this habit has become a bit of a problem because Chuck likes to talk with his hands. On a few occasions, a quick movement of his arm has resulted in a spilled beer or a close call with someone’s fingers. Well-meaning teammates have asked him to set the ball down, but he just hasn’t been willing.

Finally, one day, the inevitable happens: Chuck drops a bowling ball on Ellen's foot. It doesn't just pinch her toe or cause a bruise — when the ball lands, everyone can hear the crunch. People in the parking lot can hear her scream. Chuck knows that his actions are going to have serious repercussions.

At this moment, Chuck has made a big mistake. His relationship with Ellen is as damaged as her foot. But no matter how bad the mistake, there is always an opportunity for reconciliation. The future of this relationship depends entirely on how Chuck reacts.

He can choose to do almost anything. He might say “Whoops!” pick up his ball and walk away. He might say “I am so sorry,” then walk to the lane and bowl his next frame. He might say, “Oh my God! What have I done!" pick Ellen up, take her to his car and drive her to the hospital. He might stay with her in the hospital while she's examined. He might take food over to her house for the next several weeks while she’s rehabilitating and unable to walk. He might drive her to work every day until the cast is removed. He might do any number of things, but his choices will forever alter the nature of his relationship with Ellen. His behavior will either bring them closer together or end the relationship.

All of us make mistakes. Your actions following those mistakes will determine what kinds of relationships you build.


Part of the price we pay for our humanity is learning by making mistakes. We all do it. As you learn to walk you will occasionally stumble. Even the best math student will occasionally do a problem the wrong way. That's okay — failure is part of how we learn. It's easier to learn from other people’s mistakes, but when we make our own it’s up to us to determine what to do next. Each time we can examine what to do when we screw up and, by deconstructing that process, come up with ways to fix broken customer relationships.

When you damage a relationship with a customer, you will have to determine how to address it. Will you apologize? Will you make some sort of financial compensation? When is it a good idea to admit fault? The time to decide is now. Policies and procedures that deal with these situations are a type of insurance policy for your brand. If you know what needs to be done ahead of time, and you clearly explain these policies to your employees, many problems can be resolved before they get out of control.

All too often, business owners mess this up. They don't create policies and procedures to improve damaged customer relationships. They don't empower employees to think on their feet and handle situations in the moment. They don't acknowledge fault or, if they do, they attempt to redirect blame rather than just admit that they, like all of us, are fallible.

In an age of instant communication, a negative review can be written and posted in the heat of anger. A story can spread like wildfire, seriously damaging your reputation. But if you deal with the problem quickly, the damage can usually be contained.

In our personal lives it can be difficult to admit that we've made mistakes. But as entrepreneurs we must disengage from our emotional need to be right and look dispassionately at how we can maintain good customer relationships. It’s not just good for your reputation — it’s good for your bottom line.

  • A negative event, when resolved well, can add to, rather than detract from, a company’s reputation. Customers may see this as assurance that they will be treated fairly if something goes wrong.
  • Apologies can diminish the potential for a lawsuit, even when the damage is serious. When doctors make mistakes they can cause serious harm. But when they admit fault and profess regret, it can diminish the chance of litigation and reduce damages.
  • A sincere apology can diminish the need for financial compensation. A study in 2009 found that “people are more than twice as likely to forgive a company that says sorry than one that instead offers them cash.”
  • An apology removes the necessity for conflict. A sincere offer of regret can quickly reframe a negative event. Addressing and resolving a problem quickly is the best way to deal with feelings of anger.

Please Accept My Apologies: Fixing Customer Relationships, Part 1 — The Apology

The actions that you take after making a mistake can be broken into three parts. We’re going to deconstruct these actions and examine them more closely to create a framework on which you can build policies and procedures for your business. This frame work includes:

  • the apology — acknowledging the mistake, taking responsibility and expressing regret
  • the restitution — actions that ameliorate the damage done
  • the intention — actions that prevent similar mistakes from happening in the future.

The first step is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing and an apology for it. An apology is exactly what you think it is — an admission of guilt. It should include both a description of what went wrong as well as an acceptance of responsibility. But understanding what went wrong does not mean excusing it. At this early point in the process, don’t say, “This went wrong because….” Just say “This went wrong and I am sorry.” There will be time to describe how the mistake occurred, but the initial interaction is not that time.

The way you handle problems is a significant aspect of your brand. Customers won’t separate their personal experiences from your advertising and your products and your website — they see all parts as a cohesive whole. Creating policies and procedures to deal with negative events is as much a part of building a brand as designing a marketing campaign or creating an attractive window display.


People want to be heard. This is an important thing to remember when you begin making an apology. A great deal of anger can be dissipated simply by listening. When people get to express their feelings, the energy behind those feelings can dissipate. Listening doesn't fix the problem, but it can significantly decrease tension.

Once you've allowed your customer to speak, let them know that they’ve been heard. Repeat back what you understand and ask for clarification: “Do I understand the situation correctly?”

Listening provides you with advantages for handling the situation. You may be surprised to find out that you don’t fully understand what happened. It may be that the situation is far more fixable than you originally thought. It may be the that the whole situation was the product of a simple misunderstanding — lots of arguments are. Once you listen, you will be armed with tools you can use to repair the relationship.


It's so easy to get emotional in these situations. For some people, defensiveness is second nature. But when you recognize that this isn't a personal issue and that your simple apology can have real bottom-line effects on your business, it can be easier to turn off the emotional response and turn on the intellectual one. But regardless of how easy or difficult this is for you, now is the time to suck it up and apologize.

Once you are certain that you have fully understood the emotional and chronological context of the events, just apologize. Don't say, “I'm sorry you feel that way.” Don't say, “I wish you had….” Just say you're sorry and acknowledge that you — the business owner — take responsibility for the events that transpired. You'll have plenty of time to go over the details later.


Entrepreneurs hate to hear this. It's so much easier to just blame employees. But if your business fails you’re going to sink with your own ship. An employee can just go get another job.

If an employee mistreats a customer, you either hired the wrong person or did not train that employee effectively. You may not have put the right policies and procedures into place. Or, if you did, you may not have ensured that each employee fully understood them. Taking responsibility is hard. So is being a leader. The two are not separate — one defines the other.

Once you acknowledge this, it's much easier for your apology to be authentic. If you have taken responsibility for the business you’ve created, you will automatically feel some degree of guilt or blame. Acknowledge this. It does not make you weak; quite the opposite. Taking responsibility for what happens in your business is a sign of strength. It says,”I understand that I am not perfect because I, like everyone else, am human and fallible. I am not spending my time worrying about how people perceive me and I am not judging myself. I had enough self-confidence and faith to open this business and I have the strength to take full responsibility for the way this business operates.”

This is the very definition of authenticity.


Mistakes are little cancers. One small mistake, left to its own devices, can quickly become a much bigger problem. When a situation gets big enough, it can kill a business. The best thing to do when you recognize a mistake is to eliminate it as quickly as possible.

Most customers don’t like to complain. When a customer brings a problem to your attention, it’s already reached a significant threshold. Waiting until a customer complains is one of the worst things you can do.

Of course, you may not always know when a customer is unhappy. But if you can see a situation developing and act quickly, you will save yourself and your company from more serious consequences.

In the past, business owners couldn’t hear customer conversations. But today, much of what people are saying about your business is recorded online. If you monitor social media and the interactions between your staff and your customers, you’ll be more likely to catch problems before they become serious. (Google alerts are a quick way to get started.)

And when you see a situation developing — or even after everybody's blown it — look at the failure as an opportunity. This is a chance to train. This is a chance to learn. This is a chance to go above and beyond when serving your customers. Mistakes can be wonderful. If you see them from a practical perspective, mistakes can become some of your best business opportunities.

There's Gotta Be A Way To Fix This… Fixing Customer Relationships Part 2 — Restitution

Once you've made an apology, it's time to begin repairing the damage. We'll use the word “restitution,” to describe this second phase of the apology process.

“Restitution” comes from the Latin roots “re-“ and “statuere” — to establish again. This is precisely the purpose of restitution: to establish again the relationship that was damaged by some blunder. In order for an exchange to occur, the money a customer trades for your goods and services must equal the value that they feel in their minds. But when a customer is mistreated, that balance changes. Restitution is an attempt to rebalance the scales.


One of the most difficult aspects of restitution is the creation of an appropriate gesture. If a waitress spills a glass of ice tea she doesn't need to give the customer keys to a new car. But if she dumps a tray of food on a customer's head, free dessert may be insufficient. Each situation calls for some amount of judgement, but there's one simple method to arrive at a good resolution: the best way to determine an appropriate response is simply to listen.

As described in Part 1, it may be that your customer will tell you precisely what he wants. Armed with this information, you can do a much better job of repairing the damage. It’s entirely possible that your customer will be satisfied with something less than you might have offered. It may be that you're attempt at restitution is entirely inappropriate in the customer's mind. Or, you may find out that the customer wants far more then you find appropriate. In this case, you may understand that the relationship can never be repaired. So be it. Regardless, listening will provide you with information that can help you determine the best course of action.

One of the best ways to create benefit from mistakes is to provide your employees with an opportunity to create restitution on their own. When you allow your customers and your employees to work out a situation between themselves it can be resolved much more quickly than if every detail must be passed up the chain of command. And as we've seen, handling the situation quickly keeps it from spreading.


A creative, individualized solution is always the right way to go. It creates a more positive experience, since the individual is seen as an individual, not a nameless, faceless customer (which is often the source of the problem in the first place). And, of course, your customer is the best person to tell you what works for them.

Let’s say a waitress spills a glass of wine on a patron. If you own the restaurant, there’s no rule that says you must compensate for the accident with more food served in your restaurant — that kind of restitution can be seen as self interest. Instead, set up an appointment with a personal shopper at a boutique and pay for some new clothing. If the spilled wine ruined an evening out, give the customer vouchers for free tickets at a nearby theater. Offer a nice bottle of wine to take home (assuming the laws in your state allow it). It's easy to comp the meal, but if that's all you do, the story will be about the wine. If you do something creative, when the customer tells the story (and you can be sure that she will) it will be about the resolution, not the mistake.

If a creative solution is not possible, it's a good idea to come to the table with a number of possible options. Before problems occur you can create potential forms of restitution that your staff can put into place as needed, allowing them to judge a situation and take steps that they deem appropriate. All of the ideas above could be assembled into a prioritized procedure. The theater tickets — possibly the least expensive form of restitution — could be used to deal with simple problems, while the shopping option would be applied in only the most difficult situations.


The worst kind of restitution is one that requires the customer to do something — especially if that something is another purchase. A discount on a future sale is a terrible form of restitution. Really? You’re going to make the customer spend more money in order to repair the mistake you already made? That sort of policy is evidence of rampant self-interest, and brands your company as inconsiderate and selfish.

This isn’t a chance to make a profit, it’s a chance to prevent future losses. The $20 you spend now may help you avoid losing $100 in coming weeks. The $200 of goodwill you create could net you an additional $1000 in future revenue. Of course this is all a gamble, but it’s often a bet worth making.

We will never know what the real, bottom-line effects of a negative review will be. We can never calculate how many conversations an unsatisfied customer will have with his friends. It’s impossible to predict how an angry customer will lash out. This is why restitution is such an important part of the three-part apology process — it is valuable, inexpensive insurance.


Forgive Me! I Won't Do It Again! Fixing Customer Relationships Part 3 — Intention

A man hits his wife, then apologizes and buys her a bouquet of flowers. He slaps her across the face, then apologizes and buys her a necklace. He pushes her down the stairs, then apologizes and buys her a new car. No matter how good the apology, no matter how expensive the restitution, this is still a relationship of abuse.

No matter how sincere the apology or how appropriate the restitution, there's little point if there's no attempt to prevent another mistake in the future. Customers want to know that business owners recognize problems and want to resolve them. The future of any relationship depends upon a belief that a negative incident won't be repeated. For this reason, an intention to cause no further harm must be part of the apology process.

Intention is the most authentic form of restitution. It is the physical manifestation of regret. When you say, “I want to make sure that this never happens again,” customers know your heart is in the right place.

This is the time to explain what happened — not during the apology. After the apology and the restitution, a business owner can provide some detail as to what policy should have been implemented or what procedure needs to be created. When you wait until the third phase of the apology to provide an explanation, it doesn't look defensive. Instead, it looks responsible.


Terminating an employee should be a last resort. It should only be used when there is no other alternative. When a business owner says, "I did not train this employee effectively," or "I should have created a policy to handle these kinds of situations," she shows that she is an effective leader. But when a business owner blames, shames or fires an employee, she only demonstrates a need to avoid taking responsibility.

If a customer insists that you fire an employee, ask yourself if that's the kind of customer you really want to have. Most people don't want to be responsible for an employee’s termination, they really just want the situation resolved. Termination never fixes the problem, it just creates a problem for the employer and the employee.


Policy and procedure are your best assets. Changing the way you do business, even slightly, ensures that you're focused on the future and improving your business. But, of course, policy is ineffective without training. Demonstrating how you want situations handled is far more effective then handing a policy manual to each new hire and expecting it to be memorized.

Every policy and every procedure should be considered a temporary one. Everything can be improved; nothing is concrete. When you approach your business as a work in progress you keep it agile. Customers will understand that you are focused on their needs and, should those needs change, your business will adapt. Too many business owners hope that they can create one set of policies and never broach the subject again, but this is a mistake.

This approach has the added benefit of demonstrating a customer's value. If you change a policy after a mistake, it shows a customer that he or she was right to be upset and that your goal is to improve the customer satisfaction for all your customers, not just the one that complained. It demonstrates that you know that the incident would have offended any customer and that this customer is not an annoying, squeaky wheel; that the complaint was valuable and will benefit everyone.


If the situation warrants, reach out to the customer a second time. Sometimes we feel a bit guilty after registering our disapproval. We might be reluctant to visit a store where we lodged a complaint. But if a business owner reaches out and says, "we'd like to see you again," the work you did making the apology, providing restitution and creating positive, useful changes may actually result in another sale. Don't ever be afraid to repeat words of welcome.