Thursday, April 25, 2013

How to Turn Your Unhappy Customers Around

As part of a blog assignment for a client, I was working on an online article on how a company can handle complaints in the age of social media. Turing an unhappy customer around in any situation is a daunting task, never mind what happens on the social media frontier. One unhappy person can make you want to change the name of your business and start over if you do not handle them well.

A recent incident at Applebee’s blew up in their faces and became a social media nightmare. At this time, I suppose the kerfluffle has died down, but for days and weeks, there were more than one boycott of Applebees’s as an entire company.

It started between a disgruntled pastor and a waitress regarding the mandatory tipping that Applebee’s requires for parties over a set number of folks. The pastor made a comment on the ticket that she gave 10 percent to God and why should she give “you” 18 percent. The “you” that was on the note did not appear to be actually directed at the waitress, but rather it appeared to be a collective “you” directed towards Applebee’s since it printed on the bill that included an 18 percent gratuity.

None the less, the pastor did not pay it, a co-worker used her phone to photo the bill with the scathing comment and uploaded it to the web. The pastor was recognized by her signature. She demanded the firing of the waitress and Applebee’s complied.

This is where it went from bad to worse for Applebee’s. The masses took to Applebee’s Facebook page and proceeded to throw rotten fruit and vegetables at them. The management of the Facebook page came out swinging. They cited company policy regarding the release of personal information of their guests. While they were blasting the waitress for divulging guest information, they were posting a positive review that was from a copy of a receipt that a guest wrote on. Thus, breaking the rule they were citing as an excuse for firing the waitress.

So it went. Applebee’s stood by the firing, they tore up their fan base on Facebook, they argued with fans, 19,000 fan posts and the pastor was given a black eye in the community and blamed the waitress.
As I was researching this story and others, I realized how quickly things can escalate out of control when there is a problem. Particularly if you are trying to establish a fan base on Facebook or any other social media. Applebee’s has 3,962,960 fans. I have over 400. My problems will probably NOT escalate to a wholesale madness atmosphere, but that does not mean that I do not do what I need to do to keep my customers happy.

Online selling is hard. I do not get to see my customers face to face. I also know that the burden of trust is on them, and I must do everything within my power to maintain and nurture that trust.

They give me money based on my photos and hope I send them what is in the photo. Like you, I am sure we have all had hundreds and hundreds of online purchases over the years that we did based on the trust of the website or profile. I am sure that you, like me, stopped a few times and thought maybe this was not going to go well. We either turned away or we went forward.

What happens when a customer is not happy with a product?

First, that customer must come to you for resolution. If they cannot get it resolved by coming to you, they will take it to the card processor or the credit card. This is their legal right to get resolution. The seller – you and me – is responsible to get a package to a customer no matter what crazy thing happens at the shipping company. This is our obligation. If a customer is not happy, you can bet they are going to do what they can to let everyone know they are not happy. I have seen this happen to a few sellers I know. It is not pretty and it was not handled well. It can get stinky fast.

The first place many unhappy customers go to is the vendor’s website if they are a part of a market place like Artfire, Etsy or any of the others. They file complaints there after they have tried to get you to resolve the problem. Independent website owners like myself may find that our merchant account processor will let us know of a problem.

After that, they are headed for the social network tsunami. As much as we like to use the social networks to get our products out, people who feel they are being ignored or wronged like to use them to take you to task for your negligence.

If you find yourself in this situation, there are several steps you can take to calm the situation down and turn it around.

First of all, no matter what the customer’s complaint, there should have been a resolution from the minute they yelled foul regarding the item. Regardless of who they first complained to, the first time you heard the complaint, you should have handled it. That keeps it from becoming a social media smack down.

If for whatever reason you find yourself being blasted on social media or complaint websites or reputation websites, you must handle it.

1- Acknowledge the customer.

Let the customer know that you are there and that you hear them. They want to be acknowledged. This does not have to be public, but if you can, it does help your brand and reputation if you can acknowledge publically. This shows the many lurkers that you care and will engage in a civil conversation to rectify the situation.

- Hi, Jane, I heard you were having a problem with my widget. Can you let me know what exactly is the problem, because I am not sure I understand what has happened here.

Open and friendly.

2- Understand the customer’s problem.

It is not enough to just acknowledge the customer, but you must understand the customer’s problem. Until you can understand it, you cannot fix it. If you make your own widgets, you know what needs to be done to either meet their expectation or refund their purchase.

- Your widget does not fit my widget holder. I want you to fix that.

Again, if you can do all this publically on your Facebook page or blog site, the more, the better. You can engage all the participants in the group in a discussion on how to resolve the problem. Maybe the widget will never fit because the two pieces are not compatible. You will want to refund and pay for return shipping.
Maybe Jane is trying to fit the wrong end of the widgets together. Help her to make this work for her.

3- Sympathize with the customer.

You do not need to be disingenuous. Surely, you as a consumer, can find a place to meet the customer where you understand their frustration and anger. If you have ever had to call the cable company or any other big business that really does not care about you, you know how frustrating that is.

You can understand where your customer may be disappointed in the product. It’s not the end of the world, and your ego will survive an unhappy customer. This is about your customer, not you.

- Jane, I can see where you might think that those two widget ends would go together. Do you have Model 374747? If so, you new widget will not fit without an adaptor.

4- Gather information to help the customer.

In fact, Jane does have Model 374747, so her new widget will not fit properly without an adaptor.

Once the customer tells you what they want you to do to help them, prepare to do that.

If the customer tells you they want their money back, then it is okay to tell them you would be happy to do that once your receive your product back. DO NOT make this an issue. If you want the product back, especially if it is expensive or can be resold, then send them the postage to get it back to you. A public fight with a customer is not worth the price of postage.

In order for the customer to send the package back to you, create a postage label to yourself from the customer using whatever postage software you use. Then email a PDF file to the customer that they can print out and tape to the return box. This is the best way to get the product back with the least amount of trouble.
Send the postage with delivery confirmation and insurance. Do not leave this in the hands of the customer or make it their responsibility to get the product back. Help them to get it done, and explain to them how to attach the label and anything else they need to know. You are the professional; they are not.

5- Offer the customer a solution.

- Hi Jane, I am sorry, but that widget will not fit that model. However, I can help you with that by either sending you an adaptor free of charge, or you can return the widget for your money back.

Remember, this entire conversation and exchange is taking place in real time in front of an audience. It is imperative that you maintain a professional and courteous demeanor.

By using these steps in a calm and friendly way, you gain the trust of a lot of people, and that means a lot in the world of online retail.

If for whatever reason, this goes Applebee’s on you, you must never do what they did and argue with the fans.

If it should get so far out of hand that you want to cry, just set up a section of your blog or Facebook where there can be a discussion out of the public front page. You can add a group or make a place to go and talk these things out without a flame war. I am sure that everyone has seen a flame war, and they accomplish nothing. You are not trying to hide the fact that there is a problem, but you do deserve a chance to discuss this with the customer in a less hostile environment.

The bottom line is that a resolved issue is going to go a longer way to gaining you popularity and more business than a fight on Facebook and a boycott from your fans.

If you find that there are complaints against you on reputation sites, then by all means, go to the site and find out what the problem is. You only have your reputation and a few photos to gain the trust of your prospective customers. You should work just as hard on your reputation as you do your photos.

This is not a matter of who is right and who is wrong. This is about business. It is about YOUR business, and what you may need to do to keep growing. You can write off postage and products if you have to, but you cannot buy a good reputation.

This scenario is assuming that the customer is a civilized individual without a vendetta or a mission to destroy you and your reputation as a seller. We all know that there are just some people who cannot be helped and we should part ways as soon as we recognize this. It is okay to stand your ground with an unreasonable customer.

All I am saying here is, that if you get into a shouting match with a customer in public, just understand that it will not go in your favor regardless of who is right or wrong. Additionally, if there is a breach of your policy regarding returns or other technicalities, your policy will be trumped by their card processor or your merchant account.

Hope this helps and none of us ever need to use this.

Julie and Blu