Customer communications: what to say when it all goes wrong

communication, social media, customer service, customer communication

No-one likes it when things go wrong. But in every company’s life there will be those hiccups and problems that mean you can’t adequately deliver the expected service to your customers – and when that happens, it can be tricky to know exactly how to communicate this and win those customers back.

Some companies get it right – well done if you’re one of them. But many companies get it wrong – failing to communicate, angering customers further and creating a negative brand mountain out of an operational molehill.

In particular here I’m thinking about train companies, given the recent delays and chaos that resulted from timetable changes, but this inability to communicate clearly with your customers is something that can be seen across all kinds of industry.

So how do you get it right?

What should your company say to its customers when it all goes wrong?

1. Own the problem – and do it quickly!

When there’s a problem, it’s vital that you react quickly. We live in a digital age where social media allows word of your perceived ineptitude to be halfway around the world before the truth has had a chance to get its boots on. So you need to own the problem and start resolving it.

To take ownership:

  • Find out what went wrong – talk to the customer, talk to the rest of your team and find out EXACTLY what happened. And get all the facts written down on paper/in a document.
  • Go back quickly – don’t keep your disaffected customers waiting. They are going to be irritated at best and livid at worst, so they want answers fast!
  • Show some humanity – you don’t have to say sorry (lawyers will tell you NOT to accept responsibility) but you can show some sympathy and humanity towards your customer

2. Tell people the facts in plain English

One of the key things that drives customers crazy is being patronised or lied to. In as much as it’s possible, try to come back to your affected customers with the real facts of the problem. When people feel they understand the issue, they’ll be a lot more sympathetic to the problem.

To keep things genuine:

  • Give people the facts – if the problem was caused by human error, or bad planning, or a lack of staff then say so. Use plain English and be honest about where you went wrong as a company, without naming names and playing the blame game.
  • Steer clear of stock answers – using euphemisms, scripted answers or being economical with the truth will drive people crackers – deepening the negative feeling towards your brand. For example, don’t say the problem was caused by ‘operational issues’ when in fact it was because you didn’t have a driver for your train.

3. Use the active voice

Let’s get a little technical with the grammar now. In just about every kind of client-facing communication, you’re on more stable ground when using the ‘active voice’, rather than the ‘passive voice’. If you’re not sure of the difference, here’s a quick example:

  • Passive voice – with the passive voice, the subject (usually a person) is acted on by the verb. For example, ‘Customers were delayed due to trains not being adequately staffed. Delay repay is available.’
  • Active voice – in the active voice, the subject (again, usually a person) is the thing carrying out the action. For example ‘We didn’t provide enough staff to run all our trains, so some customers have been delayed. We are working to improve this.’

If you use the passive voice, there’s no ‘We’ and no ownership of the problem. It feels impersonal, detached and doesn’t sound very human.

With the active voice, on the other hand, it’s much clearer that you (the business) are actively involved in what happened, and subsequently in resolving the issue.

If you’re not sure whether something is passive or active, try this great tip from the excellent tone-of-voice guide from Monzo bank. If you can add the short phrase ‘…by monkeys’ at the end of the sentence, it’s passive. So, for example, ‘Customers were delayed due to trains not being adequately staffed…by monkeys’.

4. Get your message out through social media

We live in a world where the vast majority of your customers will use some form of social media on their phone. Whether that’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat will depend on customer demographics, but it’s vital to use these social channels effectively when there’s a problem that you need to communicate.

To use social effectively:

  • Post via your social channels quickly – as soon as a problem, outage or wider issue is known about, get that message out to customers through your social media accounts.
  • Respond to customers on social – if things have gone REALLY badly, you might be hard-pressed to respond to everyone, but do try to reply to every customer tweet, question and status update. When people get a reply, they feel like you care more.
  • Use a relevant hashtag – if it’s a wider company issue, use a hashtag so you can keep track of questions and your customers have a tag to latch onto.

5. Listen to customer feedback – and act on it

You may think you’re the experts in how your business should be run, but, ultimately, customer feedback is one of the most vital resources you have. Customers provide your sales, revenues and profit, and if you don’t listen then they are highly likely to jump ship to another brand.

To learn from customer feedback:

  • Don’t dismiss customer ideas – if a customer suggests ‘Why can’t you do X?’, don’t reply with ‘X is not something we’re currently looking into’. You’ve just shut down any debate, made the customer feel stupid and haven’t listened to what could be a valuable insight for your progression as a business.
  • Reply in a positive manner – when customers take the time to feed back, or make suggestions for improvements, go back with a positive response. Make them feel like you are genuinely listening.
  • Log all feedback – if you’re consistently getting the same customer feedback about your services/products, it’s likely that the business needs to act on this. Track and record customer comments and regularly review any trends and patterns in this feedback.

communication, social media, customer communication, customer feedback

Clear communication keeps customers happy

If there’s one takeaway from this blog, it’s that customers react better when you’re honest with them, and show that you’re actively working to overcome the problem they’ve been faced with.

By acting quickly, responding positively and taking ownership of resolving the issue, you keep your customers on side – and don’t ruin the reputation of your brand.

So be clear, be quick and keep your customers smiling!

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