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Customer service often involves solving problems we didn't create.
Our colleagues make mistakes. A defective product, a late shipment, or a billing error can all send fuming customers in our direction. Sometimes, customers themselves cause the issue.
We're expected to take ownership of these situations, represent the company, and help customers feel better. Yet it's tempting to deflect ownership when the pressure is on:
"They don’t know what they’re doing in that department."
"They've been having problems in production."
"You should have read the policy."
The instinct is to deflect blame and distance yourself from the issue. While the words may be true, they aren't very helpful. Customers still look at you and your company as one and the same.
Here are some positive phrases that can change the tone when you have to resolve a problem that's not your fault.
What to say when a coworker makes a mistake
Our colleagues sometimes make mistakes, and we have to pick up the pieces.
I once tried to use a paper certificate to rent a car. The employee at the rental counter told me to present it as payment when I returned the vehicle.
Unfortunately, this was a mistake. The employee should have taken the certificate. I learned this when I returned the car and explained I was told to use the certificate then. "Who told you that?!" asked the visibly frustrated employee.
His defensive statement was designed to distance himself from the problem, but it actually made him seem less capable. Here’s a better way to handle a coworker’s error:
Acknowledge the error, using “we” to accept ownership.
Refocus on a solution.
Here's what he could have said:
"I'm sorry we gave you the wrong information! It will take just a moment to get this resolved so we can get you on your way to the airport."
The time to address a coworker’s mistake is after the customer has been served. This is still an important step, since the employee might continue to make the same mistake if nobody shares any feedback.
What to say when there's a delay
Delays often happen that cause our customers to become anxious or frustrated.
You've probably found yourself getting hungry while waiting for your food in a restaurant. It doesn’t help when the server defensively says, "They're backed up in the kitchen. There's nothing I can do."
Here's a better way to approach a delay:
Apologize for the delay, using “we” to accept ownership.
Provide a brief explanation (this helps the customer feel better).
Refocus on a solution.
A server might say it this way:
"Thanks for your patience—I'm sorry about the wait. We got a lot of orders in at the same time, so it's taking longer than usual. I just checked with the kitchen, and your food will be out in a few more minutes. May I refill your drinks in the meantime?"
Notice the brief explanation comes after the apology.
The explanation will sound like an excuse if it comes before a sincere apology. However, providing a brief explanation after the apology can make the customer more understanding of the situation.
What to say when it's the customer's fault
Customers are sometimes the ones who make the mistake.
A couple went to the theatre, but discovered they had purchased tickets for the next night's show! They had paid for dinner, parking, and a babysitter, but now their fun was in danger due to a careless error.
It would have been tempting to blame the customers in this situation, but that was a lose-lose move. The customers would lose out on a night of fun, and the theatre might lose out on the couple's future business because the couple would be frustrated and embarrassed.
Here’s a better way to handle a customer’s error:
Avoid blaming the customer.
Minimize their embarrassment if possible.
Refocus on a solution.
Here's what the theatre employee said:
"Don’t worry, this happens more than you might think! I do have two seats available a few rows back. You're welcome to take those and enjoy this evening's performance, or come back tomorrow and use your tickets then. Which would you prefer?"
Giving options reduced friction because it involved the customers in finding a solution. The grateful couple accepted the offer to attend that evening, and were happy and relieved that the theatre employee had help them recover from their own error.
These phrases are just a few common examples. There will always be tricky situations where taking ownership and saying the right thing is a challenge.
There's a wonderful exercise in the book, The Effortless Experience, by Matt Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi called "say this, not that." I highly recommend you get the book, but here's an overview of the exercise:
List situations where you might be tempted to avoid ownership.
Brainstorm a list of things you should definitely not say.
Discuss more positive alternatives that accept ownership.
I've facilitated this exercise with customer service teams before and it's a lot of fun. People enjoy the chance to say the wrong things out loud in a safe setting, and they appreciate coming up with effective alternatives.
Saying the right thing isn’t easy. I said the wrong thing to the first customer I ever served, but I made sure I learned from the experience.