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You Screwed Up. Now What?

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Inevitably, we’re going to make a mistake. (I wish that weren't so!) And we’re going to have an angry customer on our hands. The good news is that a mistake is almost always fixable if you act quickly and decisively. In fact, you can actually increase customer loyalty if you handle the fumble well.

The biggest mistake that companies make in handling an angry customer is not having a carefully designed or documented procedure already in place. Not having one then leaves the employee hearing about the complaint hanging in the wind, forced to respond and make up a plan as he goes along.

That’s not good for your customer retention numbers or your employee retention numbers.

So, what do you need to consider when creating a complaint response plan?

Your customers' feelings. When someone is angry or disappointed, they need to vent. Listen empathetically. Don’t argue or refute anything they say at this point. Let them just get their complain off their chest. When they’ve started to repeat themselves, then break into the stream of the conversation and move things forward.

Your words. There are no words more powerful than "I'm sorry" in this situation. The biggest fear your customer has is that you won’t care enough to fix the problem. That they’re going to be stuck resolving the situation or accepting the status quo. You will get 90% of the way to resolution if you honestly and genuinely show your empathy and apologize.

Even if you think it’s your customer's fault----apologize that they’re unhappy, dissatisfied, etc.

What comes next. The other big worry your customer has is, "What are you going to do about it?" Your plan needs to include very time- and action-specific choices. Are you going to replace the item? Repeat the service delivered? Discount their invoice? Send someone out to inspect the situation? Will it happen today? This week? Within 30 days? On their next invoice?

Be sure you have several options for your employees to choose from, based on the situation.

Not making excuses. The reality is customers don’t care why you made a mistake. It doesn’t matter if half your team called in sick or the parts didn’t come in on time. If there is a misunderstanding---and whatever made the client unhappy is likely to happen again---do clarify expectations. But if that’s not the case, blame and excuses should be avoided.

Over-communicating. Throughout the process of making good on the mistake, keep communicating with the customer. You cannot overdo this. When the part ships from the warehouse, let them know. When you discover a problem that will add a day to the repair time, tell them. No matter how small a change or shift in circumstance---be sure your customers know you’re on top of the situation and want to make sure they are too.

A memorable gesture. Think of it as a token of your regret. It might be some value add to your product or service. For example, if you sell smart phones, it could be an extra car charger. Or it could be unrelated to what you sell.  Maybe it’s flowers or a gift basket of muffins for their office crew. But go out of your way to not only say “I’m sorry” but act like you're sorry.

That is a critical step because this is where you turn this lemon into lemonade. If you acknowledge the problem, apologize and fix it, odds are that they won’t tell a soul. But if you add the gesture of giving them something extra or having something delivered to their home or office, now that will get talked about. Suddenly, they are telling the whole story about how you rose to the occasion and resolved the problem---and then you even sent them a gift.

Suddenly, you go from zero to hero. Your customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They just want to know you’ll care enough to make things right when they go wrong.

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Drew McLellan's a 25+ year marketing agency veteran who lives for creating "a ha" moments for his clients, clients' customers, peers and audiences across the land. Sadly, for his daughter, he attempts to do the same thing at home.

Drew’s favorite tools for creating these moments are vivid story telling, Italian heritage inspired hand gestures and the occasional tipping of a sacred cow.

Over the years, Drew has lent his expertise to clients like Nabisco, IAMS pet foods, Kraft Foods, Meredith Publishing, John Deere, Iowa Health System, Make-A-Wish, and a wide array of others.

Drew writes at his own blog, Drew’s Marketing Minute and several other hot spots.

He’s written the book 99.3 Random Acts of Marketing, co-editing the Age of Conversation series of books with Gavin Heaton and he launched his own firm McLellan Marketing Group in 1995.

Recently he has appeared in the New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, Business Week and Fortune’s Small Business. The Wall Street Journal calls him one of 10 bloggers that every entrepreneur should read.

Shoot Drew an e-mail.

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  • by Beth M. Wood Thu Jan 10, 2013 via blog

    Drew - all good points...thanks for sharing! It's not "if" a mistake will be made, but "when." "Pobody's Nerfect" as my grandma used to say. Better to be prepared! My take on handling the "dark side" of customer service:

  • by Hunter Boyle Thu Jan 10, 2013 via blog

    Great piece, Drew! I love this topic. (Try not to read into that.)

    These steps are especially important with today's social media echo chamber. Immediate response, instant gratification, 24/7/365 service -- customer expectations have never been higher. Problem is, we're all human and people (and companies) will inevitably screw up or rub customers wrong at some point.

    Though it's implied in the piece above, I'd add one more step to the list: Learn from it and work to avoid a recurrence! Minimizing the number of screw-ups to be fixed goes a long way. Thanks again for sharing these tips.

    Cheers -- Hunter

  • by Michael O'Daniel Thu Jan 10, 2013 via blog

    The "over-communicating" part is good advice not only for when you screw up with a customer, but in practically every aspect of marketing and operations. I worked for a company that was always on the brink of going under and the CEO was a master of communicating with lenders, vendors and customers in an open and honest manner so that everyone always knew exactly where they stood. (Admittedly, we could have done a bit better on the employee front.) People don't like surprises, or being kept in the dark, so when you can't keep a commitment you previously made, you have to update all concerned. Always keep not only the "need to know" but "who would appreciate knowing" principles in mind and you'll find it's much easier to build strong relationships within and outside your organization.

  • by cksyme Fri Jan 11, 2013 via blog

    All good advice, Drew. I have also told clients in this situation that it might be a good idea to disable that automatic customer satisfaction survey sent out after an issue is resolved and replace it with a personal email asking if everything is okay, and asking, "how can we do better next time?"

  • by Drew McLellan Mon Jan 14, 2013 via blog


    Your grandma was a wise woman. We all mess up. It's how we bounce back that matters! Thanks for the share -- loved it!


  • by Drew McLellan Mon Jan 14, 2013 via blog


    Great add! And -- don't just learn from it in a vacuum. Share what you've learned throughout the organization so everyone can learn from it. All too often we cover up our mistakes because we're embarrassed or fear the consequences. But really -- we need to hold them up so everyone can see.

    Tough as that sometimes can be.


  • by Drew McLellan Mon Jan 14, 2013 via blog


    With the vast array of options in terms of staying in touch that we have today -- you'd think we'd all over communicate. But honestly, I think all the tools, devices and options actually has resulted in less communication rather than more.

    How do you force yourself/make it a habit to over communicate?


  • by Drew McLellan Mon Jan 14, 2013 via blog

    Ohhh, great addition. You sure don't want to rub salt in the wound and you don't want an automated process to make them feel even less important!


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