Transforming the Customer Experience

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United Airlines Needs a Lesson in Apologizing

It’s all over the news… a United Airlines flight attendant insisted that a passenger put her dog carrier containing her 10-month-old French bulldog, Kokito, in the overhead compartment. Fellow passengers state the family told her there was a dog inside the carrier, but the attendant insisted the carrier be placed in the overhead compartment. The passenger begrudgingly complied and the dog did not survive the three-hour trip. The passenger and her 11-year-old daughter were devastated, as were many of the fellow observing passengers.

To make the situation even worse, and the purpose of this post is that United Airlines issued an apology that could have been delivered by a robot…

“This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.”

Now, a few folks are faulting the passenger for complying. The plane had already pulled away from the gate and was en route to the runway for takeoff. The passenger had her 11-year-old daughter and an infant traveling with her. While I do agree that since she had already paid the $125 ticket for the dog and had him in an approved dog carrier which was designed to comply with the airline’s requirement of fitting underneath the seat in front of them and remaining there for the duration of the flight… I really can understand why the passenger complied.

Traveling with children is a challenge. Traveling with children AND a dog is even more of a challenge. She most likely ran through a variety of scenarios… They could be asked to deboard the plane before takeoff, thus causing a scene, missing a connecting flight, having to hassle with the kids and the dog, etc. All of these play secondary to what I suspect was the deciding factor for her… the flight attendant was the authority in the situation. She worked for the airline. She was trained. She knew the rules. She would never insist something be done contrary to airline rules and policies. She would not insist that the animal would be safe in a situation unless that would certainly be the case. So while I personally would likely have not agreed to comply, I can understand and see what lead to her decision. I don’t necessarily agree, but I can empathize with the situation.

And that right there is the key to how this tragic outcome should have been handled. EMPATHY. Empathy is crucial to customer experience and United Airlines demonstrated it’s clear lack of empathy in their corporate response. Assuming responsibility… express deepest regret… committed to supporting… thoroughly investigating… those words and phrases all sound close, but nowhere near good enough. It feels like they are doing their best to sound apologetic, but they are keeping themselves at arms distance from truly owning up to this and doing the right thing. I think it lacks compassion and sounds like they are just annoyed that they have to deal with the bad press surrounding the incident.

My thoughts – If I were to advise United Airlines, I would quickly have them put themselves in the passenger’s place. They have a pet they loved so much they brought it with them on their travels rather than board it in a kennel. Most pet owners love their pets almost as much as they love their children and truly regard them as a member of the family. Not that the mother wasn’t upset enough, but I imagine it would be even more difficult for the 11-year-old daughter to handle the death of a pet, as this would likely be a “life moment” of teaching. United would also need to understand that it was one of their own employees who instructed them to perform the act leading to the death of the pet. Here is how I would issue the apology…

“We cannot express how very sorry we are that this family’s pet died on one of our planes while following instructions given by one of our staff. Losing a pet is hard enough, but to lose it at the direction of a representative you believe is trained and looking out for the safety of all passengers and acting with authority – and having them be wrong – in the situation is unimaginable. 

We know nothing can be done to bring this pet back or make up for this tragedy in any way. We do want to do anything possible to help this family heal. When and if the family decides it is time for a new dog, we would like to facilitate that and cover all expenses for the cost and care of the new dog for the first three years. We would also like to make a donation in Kokito’s name to the SPCA in the amount of $5,000.

As for our United Airline staff, we will be immediately retraining all personnel involved with passengers and pets during any of our flights on the appropriate and proper guidelines and methods to ensure the safety of all passengers and pets. What happened on this flight was not in accordance with our guidelines and the dog should never have been put in the overhead compartment. We will do everything possible to ensure that this never happens again. 

Our hearts go out to this family and we hope they can believe and accept our sincerest apologies.”

So, while I am no public relations specialist, this is the type of response I would like to hear had this happened to me and my pet. It comes right out and says “We are so very sorry.” Nowhere in the United response do they use the word “sorry.”  We are human. “I’m sorry” conveys at a heart level the compassion and empathy necessary to connect at a human level when delivered genuinely. My suggested response also quickly acknowledges the passenger followed the direction of the authority in the situation. It also acknowledges the directions given were wrong and states the immediate action of training everyone to prevent this situation from happening again.

Offering to cover the cost of a new dog and it’s care for three years and a donation is a gesture of sincere intent to do right and goodwill. They can’t bring the dog back, but they can show that they are humans behind the brand. The backlash that United has dealt with in the last 24 hours over this I think would be lessened quite a bit had United done something similar to show compassion and understanding for the important role pets play in so many families’ lives. United’s response says they are committed to supporting the family, yet didn’t take the time or effort to figure that out or come up with an idea.

With all of the bad press that United has received lately, I really am surprised to see them handling this situation so poorly. The customer experience is based on human emotions. It’s based on how people feel when they work with a company. It’s based on connection and being proactive. In the cases where there needs to be a reaction, the customer experience is successful when the customer feels that the company understands their perspective and has done everything they could to make it as right as possible. It’s about feeling cared about and valued.

Again, while the passenger could have refused, and believe me I’m sure she is replaying that missed moment over and over in her mind, I consider United at fault since their representative gave the directive causing the animal’s death that was not in accordance with their policy.

I truly hope United will take a step back, look at the backlash, really listen to the undercurrent of stated lack of empathy, care and concern and remember that behind the company and the brand, they are people working to serve other people.





Best Way to Handle Upset Customers? Show Genuine Empathy

Improving customer service in the way we handle customer complaints will serve you well. We’ve all had those customers that come looking for an argument when an issue arises. The number one way to win them over?

Use empathy. Most of the time, customers simply want someone to genuinely listen to them and understand their perspective. Empathy is the perfect way to do this. Notice I didn’t say sympathy. That can suck you in emotionally and cloud your judgment and resolution skills. Empathy is defined as the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

Customer satisfaction levels can actually increase based on how companies handle customer complaints. A problem or issue does not define the staff or the company. How the company handles the issue DOES define them. Customer complaints often stem from the customer not feeling understood. They feel they are being treated like a number or a widget, not like a real person with real frustrations when issues arise.

Feelings of alienation set in when customers don’t feel listened to. When the statements “It’s our policy to…” or “It’s not our policy to do that.” comes into play, any relationship that has been built with that customer will be damaged.

Ultimately, the customer will take their business and their dollars to your competitors that have made customer service a top priority.

In order to resolve issues and keep your customers, respond to issues quickly with empathy. Your customers simply want to feel validated in their frustrations. When a product does not function properly or a commitment was not met, listen to the customer and their frustrations. It is necessary to state that their frustration with the situation is understood. It is an inconvenience for the customer to even have to pick up the phone and make the call to your company, much less hassle over how to resolve it.

Once the inconvenience and frustration has been handled with empathy, then resolve the issue in the best interest of the customer. Upgrade them to the next product level, if possible, to make up for the inconvenience and time involved. Express ship or deliver them a new product at no expense to the customer. Perform the service again and make sure that the original issues are taken care of.

Or, the ultimate loyalty builder, purchase the service or product from one of your competitors and deliver it to your customers at no charge. This may sound extreme, but if you are determined to have service be defining factor, what better way to exceed the customer’s expectations than by doing right by your customer – no matter what. By putting the customer’s best interest first and resolving it to their benefit, you will exceed their expectations, delight them, and earn their continued loyalty.

Those customers that have had issues that have been well handled will be stronger proponents of your business than those who were satisfied and had no complaints in the first place.

I’d love to hear your thoughts below…

Customers Want Compassion in a Tense Situation

Own Up and Step Up When You Blow It

A few weeks ago, you may have seen CNN or been made aware of an incident involving a salon owner allegedly berating a young mother whose child was crying during his haircut.  Once the mother was brought to tears, she was heard by other patrons saying “I’m sorry.  He’s autistic.”  The mother left the salon in tears and the stylist followed her outside to continue the haircut while the child sat in his mothers arms.  haircut
This story originated with a post by one of the onlookers on Facebook, was carried to the local news stations, then on to CNN.
It was a sad situation all around.  According to news reports, the lawyers responded that the owner was concerned for the child’s safety.  They stated that she meant no harm.  They then proceeded to state that perhaps the salon would consider donating some profits for autism awareness.
The public apology  that the owner offered was ridiculous.  She basically said that she never meant her actions to result in consequences.  Subsequent to this event, half of the staff has quit, the bad press surrounding this situation continues to grow, and social media has barely started to subside.
Why am I writing/ranting about this?  Because this is an extreme example of what we see each and every day in business.  The owner of the salon blew it.  She clearly was annoyed by the commotion of the crying and fuss by the little boy and lost her cool. 
My thoughts…
1) At the time, she should have offered to help in any way. She should have tried to see if there were any other areas in the salon to continue the cut, ask the mom if she knew of anything that may help her son, ask if she wanted to continue with the cut despite his upset, or if they wanted to come back later.  Clearly, there was a scene, but using some compassion and empathy would have helped immensely.  Sometimes, there just are no other options and you just have to push through it and be as helpful as possible.
2)  Once she blew it, she should have owned up to it.
Upon reading the public apology, I’m amazed that the owner actually permitted it to be printed.  It was so robotic and “legalized” that it took away any apologetic intent.  
She could have said something along the lines of…
“I’m so sorry about the way I handled this situation.  It seemed to be a bigger disturbance than it actually was and I completely mishandled it.  Berating or confronting someone in an already emotionally charged situation is never helpful and I just didn’t think at the time.  I was off my game and for whatever reason wanted to squelch the situation rather help.
For those who take particular offense because of the child’s autism, I’m truly sorry.  That really had nothing to do with my poor judgement and handling. 
Although it may be far too late, I’d like to reach out to the family and offer free salon services for one year.  I’d like to personally apologize for my actions and for the embarrassment and distress that my outburst caused the mother.  That is not who I am, nor ever want to be.”
I’ve waited to write this post in hopes that I’d eventually be made aware of something genuine coming from the owner.  But, as of this morning, no amount of searching has turned up anything after the “apology” that was issued.
Please understand that people blow it.  We have outbursts. We make mistakes.  We say things or act in a way that we wish we could take back when the dust has settled.  When that happens, take ownership of it.  That genuine humanness is all people are looking for today.  Concern for others is the best way to build and repair relationships, both personally and professionally.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue or any others that you are currently involved in.  Please comment below and share.
Helping you focus on your customers,

Solve Social Media Customer Complaints Out In the Open

Handling customer issues is one thing.  Handling customer issues in the world of social media is something else entirely.

No one likes to receive criticism, but you can turn it around and win both the loyalty of the complaining customer and those watching when you handle things correctly in the transparent world of Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

In a recent post,, addressed this exact issue. The matter of handling customer complaints on a Facebook page was the topic for discussion.

The author made the appropriate suggestions of acknowledging the issue, making a connection with the upset customer by offering to email or meet with them personally do discuss the problem, and to ask for input.

While I think the author was on the right track, I feel that a major opportunity was missed.  By offering to meet or discuss the issue privately was well intended, the company misses the chance to show the rest of the observers how well they can step up and resolve the issue in the best interest of the customer.

When the whole world is watching, you have the chance to show how you can shine.  For this instance, let’s suppose there was a complaint on the Facebook page of a local salon.  Perhaps a patron or client was unhappy with a haircut or color and posted it on the page.  The salon would follow the steps suggested by the author, but do so in public.  My suggestion would be to apologize for the unhappiness of the client (this is empathetic and customers need that), offer to have the client return at no additional charge to correct the issue until the customer is delighted, and to thank them for bringing it to their attention.

Doing this quickly and for all the world to see shows the rest of the readers that the salon is aware of their presence on social media, is concerned enough to respond, apologizes for the unhappiness, wants to make it right, offers to make it right, and is not afraid to fix isolated incidents.  People make decisions on what they see you do.  If you don’t resolve issues where they can see the outcome, they are left to wonder what happened or feel that it was never resolved.

Don’t make the mistake of missing any opportunity to proudly display your problem resolution skills.  You’ll be winning the trust of customers who may be on the fence about doing business with you.

Customer Reward Programs Gone Bad

Don’t hoodwink your customers!  It’s not a good business practice , it’s terrible customer service, and it’s just morally the wrong thing to do.aeroplan

Usually on Monday’s I try to find an upbeat story to blog about.  But, I found this story and it really bothers me.

The original story can be found here for you to read.

In a nutshell, the story tells of a woman who has had a rough few years recently with major health issues and wanted to get a change of scenery by taking a vacation.  When she went to redeem her credit card miles she had earned over several years, she was told that the points were now expired.  According to the story, the reward system was changed a few years ago, but inadequately explained to customers in the program.  There are so many customers impacted by this and not informed that there is now a class action lawsuit to reinstate the lost points to customers.

Before anyone gets really upset with my stance on this, I want to say that I recognize that there are many situations where companies must make unpopular decisions based on the economic stability of the business.  There are also guidelines and rules that follow most reward programs and there is responsibility on the consumer’s part to understand these when they partake.

My thoughts…..  This company should reinstate any lost points to all customers until an arbitrary date… let’s say March 1.  Then, in the next 40 days, it should make an all out effort to clearly and repeatedly explain the program changes to any and all customers enrolled in the program.  Educate them on how to make the most of the points they currently hold and how they will be used in the future.

If business is down and you realize the program is costing you more than you anticipated, stay on top of things, be honorable, come clean with your customers and find a way to work with them.

It angers me when companies make changes and hide behind the small print claiming that they informed customers of changes.  Customers are the lifeblood of your business and many of them do business with you because of the promises you make.  When you change the game plan, that’s fine.  Just be sure that you inform and educate those that are funding your programs and business – your customers.  To not do so is just playing dirty and being cowardly.

Is it just me that is angered by this?

3 Tips to Handle an Unhappy Customer

The unhappy customer who is complaining

We’ve all had them.  Some yell, some cause a scene, some silently simmer.  Believe it or not, it is a very good thing to have a customer that is unhappy because you have the opportunity to regain their trust and even turn them into one of your most loyal customers ever.

Many customers tell us that they will even spend more money with us the next time they return after we’ve handled a complaint better than they ever would have expected someone to do.

So before you start to panic when that next unhappy customer storms into your office or calls you on the phone and has already told the receptionist that they are very upset, stay calm and follow these simple steps.

1)   Apologize Immediately

Even if you aren’t at fault, the apology is crucial.  Now keep in mind, it is very possible to apologize without taking the blame.  Everyone who has ever felt wronged really wants to hear a genuine apology.  When you or someone in your company has made a mistake, it goes without saying that you need to accept responsibility and apologize.

“Mrs. Smith, I’m so truly sorry that I forgot to file those papers on time.”

In the case when it is not your fault, or even the customer’s fault, and they’ve contacted you to vent or to resolve the issue, here is my suggested wording…

“Mrs. Smith, I’m so sorry that this situation is happening.”

Many times it is the customer themselves that is causing the situation to go south.  Be sure not to point this out to them.  You can re-educate them during the follow up.  For now, only apologies will be accepted by the customer.

2)  Use Empathy

Empathy is the golden piece of this equation.  Saying sorry is a great start, but it simply isn’t enough.  The customer appreciates the apology, but they really want to know that you feel their pain.  Keep in mind that the customer is usually more irritated by the need and time necessary to resolve the situation than the issue itself.

“I know it is really frustrating when the process is delayed due to paperwork and logisitics.  You wanted to get this taken care of and now you are forced to wait.  I’m sorry.”

The main thing here is to let the customer know that you feel their pain and that you would most likely feel the same way if you were in their shoes.  That’s what they need at this point.  You won’t be able to fix the problem until you understand their perspective.  This step does that.

3)  Make it Better Than Right

This is when you show your customers that you are in it to win it and keep their business. Not only do you need to fix the problem, you need to do it in a way that not only makes up for the initial problem, but also makes the customer feel good about it.  My suggestion is to offer the customer no more than three solutions, all of which you are confident will work in their best interest.  Your customer will be left with the feeling that they’ve made out better in the end than if there were no problem in the first place.

Should you find yourself challenged to come up with an acceptable fix, simply ask the customer what they would like to see happen.  You’ll be surprised to see how reasonable they actually will be.  Often times, they’ll ask for far less than you were prepared to have to offer.

Bonus Tip – Follow Up Wins Every Time

This is your time to shine.  Not only have you fixed the problem to their satisfaction, now you are going to go the extra mile to truly show how much you appreciate their business.  You are going to call them within a few days to again apologize for the situation happening and to find out how they are doing with the resolution. This is when they will thank you for the follow up, your help in resolving the issue, and really give you some honest feedback that you can apply.

Believe me when I tell you that none of your competition is doing this.  They don’t feel that it’s worth the time. Or they think it’s important, but they don’t make the time.  Service is the best and most cost effective way to set yourself apart and this one step alone has huge payoffs.

This may also be the time that you discover the resolution did not work or they are still not happy.   Go through the process again and work with them until they are.

I’d love to hear about any companies that you feel do go above and beyond in how they handle their customer complaints.

Customer Complaint Resolution – A Fishy Restaurant Tale

Resolving a customer complaint isn’t just about handling the issue, it’s the way you handle the issue. Customer satisfaction and customer retention depends on it.  Here is how one unsuspecting restaurant lost a customer for life.

My family and I were on a weekend getaway in northern Michigan and stopped in at a restaurant to enjoy some dinner.  Since I have a younger child, we always get the child’s menu plus some regular menus.  My daughter ordered the fish and chips off the children’s menu for $ 4.99.  My husband and my older son ordered the fish and chips off the regular menu for $14.99.  It was a nicer restaurant right on the water and we were really enjoying the experience.  The server engaged us and was quite attentive.

When the meals arrived, we instantly were put off.  My daughter’s plate had one piece of fish and french fries.  My husband’s and son’s plate each had two pieces of fish identical to my daughters and french fries.  We could have ordered two children’s meals each for my husband and son, received the same amount of food, and saved $ 4.99.

In the first place, the pieces of fish were not that large and was not enough to satisfy anyone that would order a meal off the regular menu.  The second issue was the price difference did not justify the quantity of food.

The server graciously sent the manager to our table.  We explained how we thought there would be a bit more fish on the plate, especially due to the price. We explained the math I presented above. Her response was “I’ll get you some more fish.  I don’t want you to leave hungry.”  When she returned, she provided only one piece of fish for my husband, not for my son.  When we asked for him to have another piece as well, she agreed but was clearly irritated.

My point is this… When customers voice a concern, really try  to understand it.  Customers have a level of expectation that they internally monitor based on the type of store/restaurant/facility factored in with occasion and price points. While some customers are unreasonable, most are not.  Most simply want to be understood and typically have a very good point that deserves to be considered.

While this manager “solved” the problem by bringing more food, she failed to understand the issue from the customer perspective.  The feeling that was in our minds was that we were trying to get something for nothing or receive special treatment.  She didn’t try to understand that there simply was not enough of the protein on the plate to satisfy anyone over the age of 14, aside from the fact that it was simply double the child’s portion at triple the cost.

While everything else about the restaurant really was very nice, we were left with such a sour taste in our mouths, there is no way we will ever go back there.

Now, we fell into the typical business to customer situation.  We didn’t tell the manager that we were so disappointed for two reasons – 1) We were really enjoying ourselves otherwise and didn’t want to spend more time there than necessary.  2) We didn’t think she would ever get it.

How many of you, as business leaders/owners/and managers really train your teams to understand and resolve customer complaints?  How many of you train your teams about not just what to do, but how to do it?  This customer complaint lack of resolution altered our ultimate customer experience.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Please share below.

Customer Complaints Shuffled Off to a 3rd Party?

Customer Complaints? Don’t Push Them Off

I recently came across an article that had the perspective that an answering service is a helpful way to diffuse customer complaints.  The article, Why An Answering Service is an Excellent Option to Diffuse Customer Dissatisfaction stated that having a 3rd party resource to handle complaints would be advantageous to customers calling outside of normal business hours or for the smaller businesses that may not have the resources.

Their premise is that customers would see how invested the company is in their customers that they are providing a resource for handling issues.

Please take a moment to read the article if you are so inclined.

My thoughts:

While I think the author was well intended, I strongly disagree that a third party is helpful in most situations.  Putting myself in the customer’s shoes, my immediate reaction is that I’m having to deal with an outside resource who will most likely not have the authority to fix my problem or offer a solution that is plausible.  Recently, many companies are using overseas resources to handle calls and complaints and customers have responded overwhelmingly that this is only adding to their frustration and irritation.

The best way to handle customer complaints is to plan for the resolution process internally.  The company itself, not a third party, should be listening to the customer and handling the issues.  The customer wants to know that they are being treated as a person, not a numbered consumer that will forever remain anonymous.  Internal resources must be properly trained on how to handle complaints, be genuinely empathetic, offer realistic and fair solutions, and follow up with the customer after the issue.  Depending on the size of the company, this may be assigned to a designated department, person, or be handled by the business owner themselves.

The only way to get around the impersonality of a third party is to be sure that they understand the way your business works inside and out.  They need to understand and have access to customer records or history to get a feel for the specific concern.  Above all else, they must be empowered to handle the complaint in a way that will more than satisfy the customer.  The customer will likely be already looking for a fight or frustrated by having to deal with an outside resource, but if handled correctly, it can be pulled off with the right resource.

In my personal experience, I’ve never found this to be the case.  I truly don’t mean to rant against this particular author or firm.  They may very well have excellent training and solutions for their customers.  I want to caution customer care teams and business leaders from taking the easy way out in regards to customer complaints.  They are an opportunity to make or break trust.  By all means, win that customer’s trust!

Okay, I’m off my soapbox.  How do you feel about having a third party, or an answering service, handle customer complaints?  Are there some areas you feel this would work?

Take Problem Resolution to the Next Level to Increase Customer Loyalty

Customer service often requires proper handling of mistakes.

We all make mistakes.  Admit it, you do.  Your company does as well.  And, although we all have those customers who are inconsolable when we makes mistakes, you’ll find that most customers are fairly understanding of the mistake when you handle it properly and make it better than right.

Take it a step further ….

Put yourself in the shoes of your customer who had the misfortune of bearing the brunt of your last mistake.  You’ve  apologized profusely, perhaps even gave a free product or service, sent a gift certificate, or done something as a token of good faith that you are deeply sorry.  (By the way, if you don’t do any of these things when you make mistakes, you may as well stop reading now…. the rest of this will seem completely foreign).

So, in your customer’s shoes, you receive a phone call or email from your company.  It goes something like this…

Hello Kristina,

I wanted to follow up with you since our last conversation about the package being sent to the wrong location.  It’s important that you understand how seriously we take these issues and want to do everything that we can to make doing business with us a pleasurable experience.

As a result of our mistake, we’ve closely examined our processes of order entry and shipping methods.  We discovered two areas where we needed additional training and focus.  We’ve put steps into place to prevent a recurrence of these issue and we hope that you’ll give us another opportunity to show you our dedication to providing a superior product and service.

Again, please accept my apologies for this happening in the first place.  I appreciate your patience in working through this issue to improve our internal processes.

Best regards,


Now, I don’t know about you, but if I received a letter or phone calls along these lines, I’d be giving this company a second chance.  It is clear to me that they didn’t take this situation lightly and have made a few changes based on my input or as a result of the mistake they made with me.

How does your company handle mistakes?  How well do you follow up with your customers to let them know you’ve made some changes as a result?  If you aren’t sure about these answers, now may be the perfect time to start thinking about it.

Empathy Counts with Upset Customers

Managing upset customers revolves around one thing – empathy.  Instead of offering solutions first, identify with  your customer and recognize that they are upset about the inconvenience and hassle in fixing the issue much more so than the issue itself.

Also, remember that the issue itself does not define you or your company, the way you respond to it does.  Watch this short video for a real life example taken from a client meeting earlier today…..

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