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You Made a Mistake...But Now I Am Your Biggest Fan

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Pearl chose to celebrate her 94th birthday with her family and friends at a local restaurant. Although she had always enjoyed the restaurant, she specifically chose it because she was a member of its frequent diner program and was entitled to free desserts for all of her guests on her birthday.

She graciously offered each guest whatever dessert he or she wanted “on the house.” The waitress overheard Pearl and asked for the card that was sent to her announcing this offer. Pearl hadn’t brought the card with her. The waitress apologized but refused to offer the desserts, saying, “There’s nothing that I can do. It’s policy.” Pearl was embarrassed, not only for forgetting the card, but also for putting her guests in an uncomfortable position.

One of the guests asked for a manager, hoping that someone would do the right thing. No such luck. The manager repeated the same mantra: “Sorry, there’s nothing I can do. It’s policy.” The manager “allowed” the guest to call the restaurant’s corporate headquarters. Two phone calls later; a corporate manager said, “No problem!”

Of course there was a problem. A big problem! Pearl was humiliated and angry. No one left the restaurant feeling fondly about what had been a great meal celebrating a momentous occasion. It would be a long time before Pearl or any of her guests returned to this restaurant, if ever.

What had been accomplished? In an effort to “save money” by not allowing people to take advantage of the dessert offer, the restaurant had lost five good and loyal customers. Doesn’t seem like it was a smart business move, does it?

But it wasn’t just five customers that were lost. This lunch was such a bad experience for Pearl and her guests that they’ve been telling this story over and over and over.

People love to tell stories. They especially love to tell horror stories. Interestingly enough, customers won’t tell stories about satisfactory experiences. Too boring. What would be the point? But they will tell stories about exceptionally bad or exceptionally good service.

Consider these three examples:
  • You order a new door for your home. The company comes on time and replaces your door. Are you going to share that story with anyone? Doubtful. You are a satisfied customer. End of story.

  • You order a new door for your home. They come to install it and find that the frame was measured incorrectly. This is the third wrong door delivered. Are you going to share this story? You betcha! Every friend and family member will know the name of the company, and they will tell their friends and family to stay away!

  • You order a new door for your home. They come to install it and find that the frame was measured incorrectly. The installer apologizes sincerely, telling you that he understands what a waste of time this has been for you. He promises that he will personally make sure you have the right door in a week. Then he asks, “Would that satisfy you?” When you say “yes,” he sets the day and time. The installer comes the next week as promised and installs your door. You are now a satisfied customer. But he wants you to be more than a satisfied customer-he wants you to be thrilled-so he takes 20% off your bill to compensate you for your trouble. The following week, the owner gives you a call to see if everything is okay.
Are you going to share this story? Without a doubt! In so doing, you will become the company’s cheapest and most effective form of advertising!

So, how can you turn your disgruntled customer into your biggest fan?

Customers enter into every transaction with a set of basic expectations. When you create a problem for your customers by failing to meet these expectations, you’re faced with meeting a new set of even more challenging expectations.

There are simple steps that will work to not only meet these expectations but exceed them. Imagine the following scenario: Mr. Jones has arrived at your dealership to pick up his car at the promised time; however, his vehicle is still being worked on. Mr. Jones is becoming irate. What should you do?

Step One: Make an empathetic apology. It isn’t sufficient to mumble the word “sorry” and expect it to have a positive effect. Your apology needs to show your customer that you understand how your mistake has negatively impacted his life.

Step Two: Take ownership. You want the customer to understand that you are the person who will fix his problem. Ask the customer what you can do to “make it right.” Often people are afraid to ask their customers this question. They don’t want to become obligated to meet an unrealistic demand. You needn’t be afraid of their answers because simply asking does not obligate you. Most customers are reasonable; at worst, you have the beginning of a negotiation.

Step Three: Fix the problem immediately. In the case of Mr. Jones, you would want to get his car to him ASAP. Sometimes you can’t fix the problem immediately, in which case you need to show the customer that you’re making a sincere effort to resolve the problem.

Step Four: Get your customer’s buy-in. Asking for the customer’s agreement will ensure that he will at least leave satisfied. Try something like “I am so sorry, Mr. Jones. Not having your vehicle ready at the promised time must have really inconvenienced you. I will personally make sure that your vehicle is ready in the next 20 minutes. Will that be satisfactory?”

With small problems, these four steps should satisfy your customer. But remember-a “satisfied” customer doesn’t talk about his or her experience. Now, take the opportunity to add value so that your customers will talk about how great you are. To do this, you need to take two additional steps.

Step Five: Make symbolic atonement. You need to go the extra mile to show that you are truly sorry. A small token can go a long way to ease the pain your mistake caused. In the case of Mr. Jones, an offer of a free oil change might be appropriate. This gift shows that you understand that an apology alone cannot fix the problem. Reflect on what you know about this customer and choose something that has meaning and value to him.

Step Six: Follow up. This is where you can really shine! After a short period of time, call, email, or write your customer and make sure he is satisfied with your efforts. This is also an opportunity to ask for more business and referrals.

None of these steps takes an inordinate amount of time or money, but they can really create delighted customers-customers who will tell stories that promote you to their friends and family.

Now, let’s go back to Pearl’s birthday lunch. Why wasn’t the permission to provide the free desserts enough to turn it into a “good story”? The weight of the damage that was done was so much greater than the effort it would have taken to make it right at the beginning.

What should this restaurant have done? An empathetic apology would have been a start. “Mrs. Grey, we are so sorry that we ruined your birthday. We hope these desserts will make it a little better.” (Steps one through three in action.) But they needed to go the extra mile. She should have been sent a letter apologizing again and offering a free meal to compensate her for her discomfort. (Step five.) The final touch that could turn this nightmare into an opportunity to create a loyal customer would be a phone call after she redeemed the free meal to make sure that it was a good experience. (Step six.)

People are telling stories about you and your business. What kinds of stories are they telling? View every customer problem as an opportunity to produce a cheerleader for your business. Turn your potential nightmare into a great story. Do the right thing.

About the Author

Laurie Brown is an international speaker, trainer, and consultant who works to help people improve their sales, service, and presentation skills. She is the author of The Teleprompter Manual for Executives, Politicians, Broadcasters, and Speakers. Laurie can be contacted through or at 877-999-3433 or
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 beliefs  restaurants  expectations  phone calls  promises  customers  management

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