United Airlines’s recent PR disaster, where they were taped by a passenger dragging another passenger off of an overbooked flight, is just one example of how the combination of poor judgment and social media could lead to major marketing mayhem. While most small business owners would never have to deal with a PR crisis on that scale, how can they recover gracefully when they slip up on social media, have a customer threatening legal action, and so on?

The road to recovery all begins with humility riding on the white horse of sincerity.  The CEO, President, Owner (or whoever is at the top of the company) needs to first metaphorically bow with mea culpa. An honest and sincere apology acknowledging the misdeed coupled with plan-of-action is pivotal. The objective is to diffuse the situation and acknowledgment of wrongdoing always helps to begin quelling the fire.

The second aspect of the apology must include a plan-of-action. Apologies are only as meaningful as the next steps taken to rectify the situation. When you read the angry reviews of most customers, their anger stems from a lack of a business taking action. While taking action often costs money on the part of the business, whether it’s a refund or replacement, the positive feelings created by letting the consumer know you heard the complaint and are willing to fix it will often humanize the entire event.

The next step is following up with the customer on a personal level. Once the rectified actions have taken place, a phone call or email should be made to the customer to ensure the mistake was made right this time.  Offering up an incentive to come back and prove yourselves again is perfectly fine, as well.  As an example, I once purchased a Groupon to try a new hair salon. I made the appointment, paid for parking, and checked-in five minutes before my appointment time. After an hour, I was still sitting there, and no one spoke to me, so I walked out. A few hours later, I received a phone call from the owner who profusely apologized and offered a free haircut at an appointment of my choice. When I stormed out, I was infuriated, but the phone call completely diffused my feelings towards the salon.

As a small business owner, you have to understand the dichotomy of a customer. While they are often very understanding if you take the time to explain a situation, they are also micro-zoned into their own experience. You may have had 100 great service actions to this one error, but the customer is only seeing his/her own situation. Stopping to take the time and rectify the situation is always worthwhile.

Opening it up to the consumer can sometimes be a tactic of action, as well. Asking: “How can I make this situation better for you?” will allow the customer to feel like he/she has regained the lost power he/she had when the error happened. Empowering the customer to be a part of the solution ensures a satisfactory response. If there is fear that the request will be outlandish, offer up multiple solutions when you ask. For example, “I am deeply sorry your order came so much later than the expected time frame. I know we disappointed you and I would like to ensure you are completely happy. We will gladly refund your shipping expenses on this order, and for the future, would you prefer a store credit or free shipping on your next purchase?” With this action, you have acknowledged the error, apologized, corrected it, and incentivised a future purchase.

As a small business, your customers always need to be your number one priority, and truly, in the era of social media, even big businesses (as we can see from the United Airlines example) are expected to put the customer first. We have to remember that without our customers, and their word-of-mouth, we would not be in business.

Acknowledgment – Apology – Correction – Incentive

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