Dealing with Difficult People: Handling unhappy customers

Running a business or working in an office, you cannot expect that your work will always be perfect. Mistakes are bound to happen. And when mistakes happen, customers or clients or managers are bound to be unhappy with you. You thus find yourself in an uncomfortable and difficult situation. It is up to you, however, how well you can deal with the situation and handle the difficult people restoring your reputation.

On the last day of his trip, James — or, more accurately, his company — paid extra for a late checkout so that he could stay in his room to be on an important sales call. Knowing that he would need privacy, he hung the Do Not Disturb sign on his door right before the call. Sure enough, 20 minutes into James’ call, there’s a loud knock on his door.

He was distracted, but he ignored the knock, hoping that whoever was knocking would go away. Then came another loud knock. Just as he was excusing himself from the call (no doubt to the dismay of his boss) to answer the door, a hotel housekeeper slid their keycard into the lock and pushed the door open. As soon as she saw James with his headphones on, she apologized and left, but the damage was done.

The interruption had potentially cost him an important sale (though fortunately, it didn’t), and it ruined his experience at the hotel. James went down to speak with the hotel manager before he checked out. What happened next surprised him, to say the least: The manager listened to James’ entire story. Did he need the details about how important James’ call was? Of course not. But James was upset, and the manager understood that.

He also understood how important it was for James to feel like he was being heard, so he let James rant until he got everything out. Next, the manager apologized profusely. He took responsibility for the error, noting how upset he would be himself if the same thing had happened to him. He admitted that it was probably a training issue and that he would work with the housekeeping staff to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Already, James was cooling off a bit. But then, the manager went a step further. He offered James a free night certificate that could be used at any hotel in the entire chain. In just a few minutes, James went from being a furious customer to a satisfied, loyal one. By the end of the meeting, he was brushing the issue off as a minor hiccup, even pointing out to the manager that housekeeping had been excellent throughout his stay, and asking that no disciplinary action be taken against the one who came into his room. According to James, she’s still there.

This happened in Seattle, and James continues to return to the same hotel by choice because of the way they recovered from their mistake.

Marketing professors Michael McCollough and Sundar Bharadwaj call this the service recovery paradox. The service recovery paradox is the result of a very positive service recovery, causing a level of customer satisfaction and/or customer loyalty even greater than that expected if no service failure had happened. Simply put, mistakes happen. They’ve always happened, and they always will happen. Good customer service isn’t about completely eliminating mistakes — a near-impossible task — but about leveraging the opportunity created by a mistake to build a deeper relationship with your customer.