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Managing Crisis Situations with Customers

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

In my early days as a Customer Success Manager working for a SaaS company, I thought that if I gave the best service I knew to give and did everything that the customer asked of me, the customer would be happy, my managers would approve, and all would be good in the world. Very quickly, though, I realized how wrong I was and that the vast amount of variables that contributed to whether a customer was happy or not were mostly out of my control.

In December 2020, Google (the giant) had a worldwide system’s outage that severely disrupted service for many workplaces. The outage lasted for forty-five minutes, preventing customers from receiving emails, viewing proposals, scheduling meetings, viewing YouTube videos, etc. Obviously this was out of anyone’s control (except for the Google teams), but businesses still had to deal with the implications of the outage—explaining to their customers any delays in their responses, services, and timelines.

As much as we want to control everything and make the experience seamless for our customers, that just isn’t the reality of doing business (or of life) and difficult conversations need to be had to manage the expectations and ensure that trust with your customers is ongoing.

How to react when something goes wrong:

Now that we have established that things will inevitably go wrong, let’s dive into how we should react when this happens. Every business will be a bit different based on the various components that can contribute to the situation, but overall, your response should be relatively systematic for any type of conflict management with customers.

First, there is no need to apologize! Empathize and over-communicate instead!

Second, stick to the facts & figures. Don’t let your emotions take over the conversation but rather stick to the facts of the situation.

Make sure your customers know that you understand their frustration and are working to resolve the issue. Ask any clarifying questions and never assume you know the whole story. If you need time to gather the details of your response, set the expectation with your customers that you are looking into the issue and when they can expect to hear back from you.

Once you have all of the details, send your customer an email answering the following questions:

  1. What happened? Recap the events leading up to the problematic situation. If possible, include timelines and additional details as necessary.

  2. Why it happened? Don’t shy away from saying it was a human mistake. I promise you that your customers have made mistakes too, and they will appreciate you taking ownership and admitting that you were wrong.

  3. What are you doing to resolve the issue? Again, including as many details as possible. Timing is key here! Mistakes happen, and that’s okay, but the true measure of your business will be how fast you react and correct the situation.

  4. How are you going to prevent the issue from happening again in the future? Customers prefer to hear process-driven methods (i.e. I will be adding a QA step to my process, which will ensure any spelling mistakes are checked before publication”) rather than personal commitments (i.e. “I’ll check my work twice before publishing”).

Answering too quickly without having all of the relevant details can cause more harm than good to the relationship with your customer.

It’s important to remember that it’s not the mistake that defines your business, it’s the speed in which you correct the situation and respond to your customers.

Minimizing Future Crisis Situations:

Setting expectations is key when trying to minimize any conflicts with customers. Here are a few suggestions that can be implemented immediately by any business:

  1. Set Expectations: At the beginning of any new customer engagement, make sure to document and share all Project management details with your customer. These details should include, at a minimum, the service offering that they are signing on for, the deliverables that will be provided, and the timelines. Any changes should be clearly communicated with the customers and an updated document should be sent. Usually customers are very understanding of changes if there are valid reasons for the shifts in expectations—as long as these shifts are clearly summarized and detailed. *Note: the timelines above are VERY specific to your business, and you are the best person to decide the balance between an urgency for delivery vs. potential buffer time you can add.

  2. ALWAYS under promise and overdeliver! Remember that your customers are most likely making plans based on the timelines that you provide, so any delay in your timeline is directly going to influence their timeline and make them look bad. Add buffer times to your expected project timeline. If a project is expected to take a week to complete, tell your customer that you can have the completed project to them within a week and a half. They will be pleasantly surprised when they get your project in hand before the deadline. You can also add some extras to your deliverables if you have time and resources...

  3. Learn from past mistakes. his is pretty straightforward but understand what changes and/or improvements that you can implement in your processes to ensure that similar mistakes don’t happen again.

Pro Tip: I recommend using a shared Project Management tool with your customers. This can be as simple as Google Doc, Google Sheet, Trello Board, Asana,—all come of which come with free versions or trials that can be used.

Remember: It's important to recognize that you can’t control everything, but what you can do is show your customers that you will do everything in your power to correct any issue. Don’t dwell on the mistakes but rather focus (and keep your customers focused) on the future and what they should expect to experience by working with you. If you are consistent in taking action when things go wrong, your customers will have full trust in your capabilities, even when things don’t go according to plan.

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