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The Impact Of Internal Crises On Our Customers

Things can happen, even in the very best organisations, that impact customer service. 

For example, as Trainers’ Library approaches its 20th birthday next year, I’m reminded of the day 18 years ago, when a fire in a BT tunnel in Manchester took down our website and all the others hosted by a company that didn’t have the contingency they’d promised. And the time when our offices, despite being near the top of a hill, were inundated with flood water rushing off the fells in a flash storm.

In both cases, our contingency plans served us well. In the first instance, Trainers’ Library was rebuilt and back online with a new hosting company within 48 hours. And in the second, most customers probably didn’t notice the speedy transition to our first experience of remote working.

But having an effective contingency plan is only part of the story; equally important, in my view, is how we communicated and empathised with our customers in those moments of crisis. Because, although most customers didn’t notice the disruption to our business; some will have. 

In times of crisis, it’s easy, perhaps natural, for our attention to turn inwards, to become introspect, focused on the impact the challenge is having on us. But, surely, it’s at these moments we need to be even more focused on our customers’ needs and emotions?
A couple of weeks ago, I sailed back to France from Portsmouth. Normally, the company I use provides an excellent service, but on this trip things went wrong. The ship was 45 minutes late boarding and when we did board, the cabins weren’t ready. A bigger problem became apparent later when we discovered there was no water in our cabin. Like other passengers, we assumed this problem was unique to us and so we toddled off to reception to report it. However, the night porter, clearly stressed, admitted dismissively that it was a ship wide problem. He assured us that engineers were working on it and the problem would be fixed by morning.

Morning came and still there was no water. This meant no water to shower, wash or even flush the toilets. Worse, probably, for some, no water to provide coffee.

Only as we docked in France was any announcement made, letting the, by now, very disgruntled passengers know that there was, in fact, no water anywhere on board. The late apology for any inconvenience seemed too half-hearted and insincere to prevent the very vocal mutterings in every corridor.

Maybe, if an announcement and sincere apology had been forthcoming the night before when customers boarded, together with, perhaps the provision of a bottle of water for customers to at least clean their teeth (especially as the shop was closed due to the late sailing), with the promise of further compensation in the form of a discount on a future sailing, I’m fairly sure the company could have reduced the number of complaints both at sea and, undoubtedly, since, and dramatically reduced any reputational damage caused by this technical problem. 

Instead, it seemed, the crew collectively turned their whole attention inwards and effectively away from customers. I get it; after all the customers weren’t the only ones inconvenienced by the situation. The crew experienced the same inconveniences and not only that, had the added stress of trying to resolve the problem whilst fending off customer complaints. But being open and honest might just have made their jobs a little less stressful (especially for frontline staff) and created some mutual empathy.
Of course, it can be tempting to hide or camouflage internal problems in the hope that most customers won’t notice the impact they’re having. But this approach carries real risks. Because if customers are impacted by problems we’ve tried to ignore, hide or play down, they’re likely to feel frustrated and angry. Worst of all, because it is surely the foundation of every relationship, we risk losing their trust.

I think some of the kindest, and most valued feedback we’ve ever received from customers has been that which refers to us as part of their team. For me, this emphasises a mutual respect and appreciation that I think is at the core of customer service. 

Thinking about customers as part of your team might be key to remembering how they too will be impacted by any unavoidable problems you face. It might also encourage the sort of honesty and openness that I’d argue is more likely to result in greater empathy from your customers and in you being able to come out of a crisis without reputational damage (so long as they can see you’re doing something about the underlying problem).
As you’d expect, there’s loads of material in Trainers’ Library that will help propel your customer service to new heights. Here are links to a few, including a popular module that will help any organisation that gets it wrong in the moment, deal effectively with the letters of complaint that follow:

*Remote Delivery Versions Available.

Until next time…

May 10 2022Rod Webb

Rod Webb

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