How do you handle a customer for whom something has gone very wrong?

It’s bound to happen eventually.

Imagine how angry the guy holding the poster is.

The hardest thing to remember in a crisis is that the client, who’s likely irate and possibly evening threatening, is a person, with all of the emotional complexity inherent. So I like to start by trying to understand exactly why they’re feeling the way they are.

It’s often not “because I paid for it” self-righteousness. I’ve found it far more likely that the current crisis is either preventing them from accomplishing something they want or reflecting badly on them personally. And figuring out precisely which allows for two positive outcomes:

  1. It allows my team to come up with a minimum-viable solution.
  2. It makes the client feel heard, which subtly shifts their allegiance toward my team.

All of a sudden, we’re working together to do the first most important thing: alleviate their pain. Take, for example, a “hypothetical” digital signage product (let’s call it Lira) and one of their hotel customers. A ticket comes in saying that their screens are “showing a ‘Lira — Setup WiFi’ error message.” All 12 of them.

The IT manager on the phone with us has just finished setting up, which adds to the frustration. But it also demonstrates that, due to a device state issue, the devices are now completely unrecoverable by the client. Great. There’s no way we’ll be able to fully fix this issue by the end of the day, so in order to build trust, I give the client our context: “This is going to take a bit of time to fix on our end, but we want to make this better for you right away,” and ask for theirs: “What brought this to your attention?”

By asking for their context, we’re able to figure out that their brand manager pointed it out as a brand identity infraction. That’s solvable! We remote in and power down all 12 devices, to be reboot by the next day once we have a fix deployed. And by solving the immediate problem, working diligently on a broader fix, and keeping the IT manager in the loop, they’re now actively working with us to fix the problem, as opposed to against us. They even happily do the work of powering all 12 devices back on by hand.

A customer with a problem that you make first heard and then happy is a loyal customer for life. At least, this one still is.