Given the current news cycle with United Airlines, it seems apropos to revisit the topic of customer relationships and crisis management.  Our companies are unlikely to be as large or newsworthy as United Airlines, but any and all companies are at risk for customer-facing events that can quickly snowball into public relations disasters if not handled properly.

Be On the Lookout

The first critical step to preventing a single event from becoming a widespread problem is being in touch with your customer community.  In the day and age of social media, nearly no company is too small to have a discussion forum or Facebook group dedicated to it.  Knowing if such a thing exists for your company, and being an active member therein, is the quickest and easiest way to keep your finger on the pulse of your customers.  If a gripe arises and is being aired publicly, you’ll see it as quickly as your other customers do, and have a chance to respond quickly.

Fill in the Details

Nothing falls more flat than when a company responds to a customer grievance with the canned “I’m sorry to hear about your experience.  Please contact us directly so we can assist you”.  If a customer has a complaint, it’s time to immediately do research and respond with a more informed message.  See if they’ve emailed, if they’ve posted to social media company profiles, or called very recently about the issue.  If so, acknowledge their efforts and be the one to actively reach out to them (using their logged contact information) rather than continuing to saddle them with the responsibility of coming to the company to have it fixed.

Watch Your Language

Customers who are unhappy enough to complain publicly are extra sensitive to your word choice.  Statements like “I’m sorry you feel this way” are sure to upset them further as they shift ownership of the problem back to the customer: “this is not about our shortcomings or failures, it’s about your interpretation”.  Don’t tread lightly because you are worried it may make the company look at fault.  Your goal is to look open to truly helping the customer.

Own the Situation

Regardless of the customer’s personal interpretation of events, something in their interaction went sideways and needs to be addressed head-on.  A simple acknowledgement that it is always the company’s goal to satisfy its customers and an apology for having fallen short is always an appropriate place to start.

Offer an Olive Branch

When customers’ stories go public, what they want more than other people’s outrage or sympathy, is an expedited reaction from the company.  They are hoping that, somewhere, there’s a listening ear from the company with both the power and the motivation to fix the problem.  “We are so sorry this has happened.  We value you and want to make things right for you, immediately.”

Impersonal responses or attempts to downplay events never work out in the favor of companies.  Rather, they are seen as out of touch or callous and quickly erode a brand’s trust and customer loyalty.  Controlling that knee-jerk reaction and having a solid plan in place for crisis management is a crucial part of operating a business in today’s social world.  Does your company have a plan in place for when things head south in a public manner?