Making Peace With Customers

So, you messed up. You're not the only one. Here's what you can learn from Blackberry's service outage debacle and its strategy for easing customers' pain.

After a global service blackout that affected millions of customers last week, Blackberry maker Research In Motion announced Monday it would make up for the debacle with $100 worth of free apps for affected subscribers. It also offered a month's worth of free technical support to companies.

A big enough band-aid? Maybe not.

RIM co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis defended the freebie plan after an immediate wave of complaints. "This is our offer and we worked systemically over the last three days to make that. That was a pretty comprehensive set of efforts," Balsillie told Bloomberg News.

"I give them a C-minus," says Hamilton Wallace, a small business marketing consultant based in Scottsdale, Arizona. "Look, every company will make mistakes. How you handle it can be the difference between keeping business and sending it elsewhere."

Certainly, there are ways to ensure that your business doesn't go bust after you've made a mistake—and small business owners have a particular edge in handling a crisis.

Admit and apologize. First things first, Wallace says: "You have to immediately—not days later—admit and apologize for the mistake, even if you're still in the thick of the problem."

Scott Stratten, author of Un-Marketing, says Blackberry's initial YouTube video apology that featured Lazaridis speaking directly to users was actually a good example.

"I was impressed by that because those guys don't do that often. It showed a certain level of sincerity," he says.

Don't just throw money at the problem. Wallace advises that when deciding exactly what the compensation should be, just ask your best customers.

"In my experience, eight out of 10 people don't want anything. It's shocking," he says. "They just want to be heard."

This is where small businesses might just have the upper hand over large corporations. "A company like Blackberry can't do that because they don't have the one-on-one with their customers," Wallace adds.

Stratten, who personally lost service on his Blackberry for three days, agrees: "The video was great, but the $100 app freebie felt gimmicky and impersonal. It almost ruined the apology."

Keep the compensation close to the pain. "If you break my window, I don't want a bottle of wine, I want you to fix my window," says Wallace. "It's good to remember as an owner to think like the customer. You want back the value of what you lost."

One of the general complaints about Blackberry's solution was that the free apps didn't seem comparable to—for some subscribers—days of no service. And while it is infinitely more complicated for Blackberry to quantify the perfect compensation for millions of people, doing so shouldn't be so for a small business owner.

Be more transparent than ever. Communicating to your customers during a crisis is important, but these days, sending out a press release just isn't enough.

"Update customers on Twitter, Facebook, or better yet, have your people call the customers directly," Stratten says.

And, as customer communications go, there's never a more important time to be spot-on, Wallace says. "Your level of communication during a crisis moment tells your story, shows your viability, and shows whether you are trustworthy," he says.

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