A building with an incomplete arch wall
A building with an incomplete arch wall
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Customer Service Mistakes, They Happen, How to Fix Them

Paul Kiernan

Let’s start with the obvious; mistakes will happen. Even if you have the Olympic Gold team of customer service folks, there will still be mistakes. How you handle those and move forward can define who you are as a company and a brand.

Let’s start with the obvious; mistakes will happen. Even if you have the Olympic Gold team of customer service folks, there will still be mistakes. How you handle those and move forward can define who you are as a company and a brand.

If you’ve been reading any of our articles about creativity, you'll see that those ideas and exercises apply here as well. It all comes down to saying yes.


There’s a story about how John Lennon met Yoko Ono. Lennon was at a showing of Yoko’s work. There was a piece that required viewers to climb a ladder and look through a telescope. When looking through the telescope, Lennon saw the word ‘yes.’ Lennon later remarked that if the word had been anything else, he would have moved on.

Why is the word yes so powerful? Because it is a gateway to possibilities. We’ve discussed this before; many people in powerful positions have used the word no time and time again simply because it gives them a feeling of power and security. The word No does that. You say no, and that’s the end of it; you’re safe, you know what’s not going to happen, and that’s that/ Whereas yes sends you off on many journeys of the possible. It’s less safe, but it’s much more fun and productive.

When dealing with a customer service mistake, you have the choice of yes or no, which you choose will define your customer service etiquette and brand. Which option is best for you?

Simplifies; yes is positive, powerful, and leads to more. No is safe and negative and gets you minimal forward progression.

Saying yes to customer service mistakes is a positive and productive way of moving forward.

Embrace the mistake

As we all know, mistakes happen. You can view mistakes in one of two ways; they are bad, the customer service agent is bad, and the customer hates us; this situation is an abject failure. Or two, this was a mistake, we’ll rectify it for the customer, mistakes happen and now, let’s learn from it.

Our impulse will probably take us down the first road because when the customer is upset, yelling at you, and saying they are going to get on social media and tell the world that your company stinks, it feels like the end of the world. But what is the outcome of this kind of negative thinking? Your customer service team equates mistakes with failure, leaving them nervous, full of self-doubt, and basically frozen in fear and feel they have no support. How do you think they will perform now?

Now, they will be on edge, tense, panicked, and ready to snap at the next customer who even hints at being dissatisfied.

If, on the other hand, you see that mistakes are inevitable, you support your customer service team and put a positive spin on the mistake, such as, now worries, that happens, now let’s see what we can learn from this, then you’re cookin’. Now you’ve created a more positive atmosphere and given your customer service people a space to grow and improve.

When you see it as a negative, your team hears; never make mistakes, don’t do it, or you’re done. And they dread coming to work, dread their jobs, and hate their lives, and eventually, you’ll be hiring new customer service folks day after day.

If you embrace mistakes and show your team that they are good because they help us grow and learn, you have established a much more positive work situation, and everyone, your customer service, and your customers will benefit from that. Accept the mistakes, be positive and learn so you can grow.

Now Fix Them

An orange and white traffic cone sitting on a broken croncrete sidewalk tile

Mistakes are inevitable, but facing them as positive helps. This isn't to say you should send the customer service team out with a “go make a ton of mistakes out there today” attitude. Avoiding mistakes, especially repeated mistakes, is a good idea, but when they happen, learning from them is ideal.

When they do happen, your customers will expect some kind of action that will make it up to them. This keeps them happy and hopefully prevents them from trashing your brand all over social media. To that end, here are a few tips on what to do to assuage the customer's ire and make things right.

The customer is feeling something, acknowledge that

First step, always, is to listen. It’s easy when an irate customer is shrieking at you to tune out and just go on autopilot. Though the pull is strong, you’ve got to resist. You've got to stop, breathe, and listen.

When you don't listen, you’re dealing with the angry customer like every angry customer, and that is just not good, not for the customer and not for your customer service. When you listen, you relate better and understand deeper.

The trick here is to listen actively. Through all the yelling and the, I cannot believe, and this is an outrage, language, somewhere, is the crux of the problem that maybe even the customer doesn’t understand. By listening actively for the truth, for the real problem, you’ll be able to assuage the customer much more easily. So, instead of just hearing the emotion, listen to the words they are saying.

Maybe, the problem is the customer just doesn’t feel heard, and you can give them that. Listen actively and then honestly empathize with them. Be vulnerable; put yourself in their shoes. Think of when you’ve had a terrible customer service experience and relate to them human to human, not just as a customer service rep and customer. Take away the roles and just be a person for this other person.

Some articles on this subject will give you the perfect sentences to use to calm your customers, such as I understand what you’re going through, or this must be very disappointing for you. Frankly, your problem may be more profound if you need a list of sentences to say to a customer. Be present, listen and just speak the truth, and think about what you’d like to hear if you were an irate customer. Be empathetic. Be human. Listen.

Apologize immediately

The customer doesn’t care about your supply chain problems or the fact that Dickie in purchasing is going through a painful divorce; there may be time for explanations, not excuses, later. But straight out of the gate, acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake, own it, and apologize.

When you sincerely apologize, and you do so because you’ve put yourself in their shoes and recalled a terrible customer service experience, the customer will feel heard and understood. They will usually calm down, and you can proceed to make the situation right.

A sincere apology goes a long way to starting a productive conversation and keeping a customer loyal to your brand. Studies have shown that a genuine apology coupled with compensation increased customer satisfaction from 37 to 74%.

You did it, so own it

A raised hand in a lecture crowd

The last thing a customer wants to hear when they are upset is excuses. Maybe you can explain why the mistake happened later, but initially, you made the mistake, own it, and make it right.

The truth might be that Tom in receiving is a drunk, and he passed out on the orders on Friday afternoon, and no one knew til Monday morning. However, the customer doesn’t see Tom as an individual; they see him as part of a coherent entity. So, the entire company as a whole is one entity, and thus if you tell them about Tom, they will see the whole company as drunk and irresponsible. Now, it doesn’t matter that he is unique; that’s not how the customer sees the situation.

So, apologize as the company and make it right, as the company, and this will improve the customer’s view of the company as a whole.

When you’ve owned it and apologized, the next step will be to rectify the situation. In a past blog, we discussed how the Walt Disney World Co empowers their employees, or cast members, to do excellent customer service; we can take another clue from them in this situation.

You’ve probably heard this before: you point out a company's mistake, and they ask, what would you like us to do? Huge mistake for two reasons. What if the customer says I want you to give me your entire inventory for free and pay me a million dollars on top of that. Sound insane? Well, it happens.

The second reason this is bad is that it puts the onus on the customer, they have made a complaint about a mistake you’ve made, and now you want them to decide what should be done about it. That doesn’t feel like you’re in control or that you care about the customer’s problem.

The best response, and the one that gives you a better chance at keeping the customer loyal, is to apologize sincerely and then tell them what you’re going to do to make it right. Or, give them choices we can do, a, b, or c; which one works best for you? Show them that you’re really thinking about the problem, that you’re on top of the situation, that you own your mistake, and that you have concrete ways to improve it.

What would you like us to do sounds awfully close to “whattaya want me to do about it?”

Now, explain

After you’ve listened, apologized, and rectified the mistake, then you can explain why the mistake happened in the first place. This should come after the problem is addressed and fixed because until that happens, you’re still dealing with an irate customer.

It’s better to follow up the conversation with an email to explain what went wrong. An email is always a great follow-up to a customer service call, and one that offers an explanation shows that the complaint wasn’t just heard and then shelved and that you’re putting work in to get to the bottom of the mistake. A customer will appreciate that, and allowing time to pass before sending an email, gives the customer time on their own to digest the situation.

Even if you apologize and compensate the customer for the mistake, they may still have residual anger while on the call with you; in that mood, they will not have the patience to listen to an explanation. Receiving an email no later than a day after the conversation gives them time to be open to and appreciate the explanation.

It’s also good for the customer service rep to understand why the mistake happened. This allows them to understand the workings of the company better and maybe helps in assuring the mistake is never made again. Knowledge is always a plus in any situation, and using a mistake to understand the company in more depth is an excellent outcome of a mistake.

Personalize when you can

Once you’ve apologized, made things right, and have the customer calm and not ready to bring down your brand on social media, think about giving them a personalized perk. You've done your research into your ideal customer and demographics, so you should have a basic idea of what the customer is into. If there is something that your company provides that they don’t have, offer it.

Say, for example, you’re a media provider, and you know your customer loves sports, but they don’t have whatever premium sports package you offer, give them access to it for a month or so.

This should be over and above something they would be surprised you are offering.

Take a positive spin on mistakes, but work to prevent them too

A person standing at the top of a mountain

Taking a positive spin on mistakes is going to make for better working conditions for your customer service folks, but don't go looking for mistakes just to have teaching moments.

Make sure you’re training your people well; give them all the tools they need to succeed and information about how to deal with angry customers. Fill them with helpful information that will make them excel at their jobs. There is an old saying that holds true here, failure to plan is planning to fail. That’s true. If you don’t arm your people with knowledge and information, you’re not helping them be your company's best representatives or brand.

Be open to feedback. Send an email following a session with customer service and ask for honest feedback. Ensure everyone is reading and digesting that feedback so they aren’t repeating mistakes repeatedly.

Mistakes, now and then, make you better

As your company grows, so will the opportunity for mistakes; they will happen; that’s life (sing that line like Sinatra); you cannot avoid it. How you deal with them, move forward, and assuage your customers’ ire will define who you are; just keep that in mind when dealing with mistakes and training new people.

If handled well, a mistake is not the end of the relationship but perhaps the beginning of a deeper, more loyal relationship.