Customer service: Response to a mistake determines whether you keep the customer

(Flickr photo: Community Commons license by Philip Bitnar)

Every business does something now and then that makes a customer unhappy. How you respond determines whether that customer forgives the error and remains your customer or takes their business elsewhere. You really need to be on top of your game when it comes to making amends.

This is a topic that was very much on my mind this week when the garage where I have my car repaired messed up big time. Here’s the scenario of why I will be looking for a new auto repair facility in the future:

Monday – late afternoon: A mechanic put a screw through my car’s gas tank while trying to repair the muffler’s loose heat shield. Customer irritation level: 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. I could see how that could happen when he was rushing to fit in a 10-minute repair at the end of the day. I wrote it off as an accident that could happen to anyone and assumed they make things right as quickly as possible. After all, I’m a good customer; I spent over a grand in their garage in the last three months alone. (Thanks, Ford Motor Company, for the poor quality cars you were churning out in the 2002.)

Tuesday morning: Unable to get a new tank until Friday, the mechanic obtained a used tank and told me he would install it Tuesday evening after hours. The tanks are plastic so a used one seemed fine to me. He told me that if something happened and he wasn’t able to install it then, he would call me and he would arrange for me to have a rental car on Wednesday. Customer irritation level: still only at 2. The guy had the part and I assumed he’d install in ASAP. Silly me.

Tuesday evening: No car and no phone call from the mechanic. Customer irritation level: 7 Not calling when you promise to call is, of course, very poor customer service.

Wednesday morning – early: Still no call from the mechanic. Customer irritation level: 9

Wednesday morning – late: I called the garage and was told the mechanic was out doing his other job (looking for used cars at auto auctions) and wasn’t expected in until late afternoon. I was clearly unhappy so they said they would call him and have him call me.

When the mechanic finally called, he said he was going to install the tank that evening. He didn’t explain why he hadn’t done it the previous evening or why he hadn’t bothered to call me. He did not offer to get me a rental car for the day, but he did say if there was a problem with installing the tank that evening, he had a loaner car he could give me for Thursday. Customer irritation level: 10 – future business now officially lost. I live in a rural area; being without a car for two days means the errands that I needed to do this week were getting seriously backed up.

Wednesday – 8 pm: My car finally arrives in my driveway. In fairness, I should say he filled up the gas tank to replace the gas that had been lost with the mistake and he didn’t charge me for anything. But it was too late for that to matter much.

In this instance, this business missed chance after chance to redeem themselves. Let me count the mistakes the mechanic made that compounded the original error:

  1. He didn’t get the car back to me as soon as possible and at the time when he initially said he would have it fixed. Twenty-four hours passed after his original timeline for making the repair before I had my car back.
  2. He told me he’d call me and then didn’t. I had to call him to find out what was happening, only to find out he wasn’t even at the garage.
  3. He showed me I was a second-class citizen in his customer line-up by not making the repair of my car a priority over the work he was doing for other customers.
  4. He had a solution for me – a loaner car – that he did not make available as soon as it was clear it was going to take longer than expected for him to work me into his schedule.

In so many instances, the original mistake is something relatively minor that gets blown up into something much greater if you don’t respond quickly and effectively. Don’t let customers walk away from your business because you don’t have systems in place to make sure errors get fixed in a way that leaves the customer satisfied with your response.

Some experts believe customers who effectively have problems addressed will actually be happier customers than those who don’t have any problems with your service because you’ve shown them you really care about their business. People remember how you went out of your way to fix something.

On the other hand, if you don’t respond appropriately to a mistake, you can be assured that your lost customer will let others know about it. I made a conscious choice not to name the offending garage here, but generally people have little compunction about trashing a company’s reputation if they feel they’ve been treated poorly. Just make sure you don’t give your customers a reason to do that when something goes wrong.

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