My wife and I decided to have a stamped concrete patio built. Not an elaborate backyard oasis, but a place where we could relax with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and I could teach my daughters the fine art of grilling.
We went to a friend of a friend’s house where a stamped concrete patio was built a year ago. The neighbor was very happy with the contractor, and we loved the look.
I met the contractor to discuss the project. A bit of a talker, but he seemed like an honest guy who knew what he was talking about and took a lot of pride in his work.
It took them about three days to build the patio. Honestly, it looked phenomenal. Exactly what we wanted. The contractor’s crew also took extra care to avoid killing our grass with their equipment, and they spent at least an hour cleaning up our yard.
A couple days later, we left the kids with their grandparents and spent a few days in Cape May to celebrate my wife’s milestone birthday. When we got home, I was moving our outdoor furniture from the garage to our sparkling new patio when I saw it.
A crack. I know all concrete eventually cracks, but this wasn’t five years later or two years later. This crack appeared less than a week after the patio was built, and it had barely been touched.
A two-foot, effing crack.
It was a kick in the stomach. We were devastated. We had visited a winery two days earlier and talked about getting a couple wine barrels to use as tables. Now, our excitement was crushed. I didn’t think the contractor was a bad guy, but I obviously had to contact him to let him know what happened.
It was on a Sunday, so instead of calling the contractor, I sent him an email with the subject line, “Crack in Patio.” It pained me to type it. The email said:
Please see attached photo and let me know when you can address it. The crack is about two feet long, coming out from the corner of the steps. Thanks.
Here is the response I received – two days later – with punctuation added for clarity:
Looking at the picture, yes, they are surface cracks. Unfortunately, they happen at the corner of steps sooner or later. I don’t believe it’ll get any wider because it has a lot of wire and reinforcement. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do with it. I will come back in the fall and reseal it for the winter. Just call me at the end of the season.
Um… what? No apology? You’re pretty much sh*t out of luck but feel free to call us in a few months?
When I saw the crack, I was upset about the patio. When I saw the email, I was pissed at the contractor.
Always Say You’re Sorry. Always.
I spoke to the contractor the next day. He eventually did apologize, after saying they did everything right.
But the lack of an apology in his initial response put me in such a negative frame of mind going into that call. I went from disappointed to angry.
Even if you feel you did everything right and nothing wrong, even if your customer is acting like a raging lunatic and complete jerk, even if you don’t think there’s anything to be complaining about in the first place.
There needs to be some kind of apology or at least a show of sympathy.
Some people never apologize because they feel an apology is an admission of guilt. My gut tells me that’s not the case, but I’m no lawyer, so I did some digging.
Apologies have been used as legal evidence of liability in the past. But I found legal papers from Cornell Law School and University of Missouri School of Law that say apologies don’t imply liability or prove an error was committed. In fact, an apology is more likely to help you resolve conflict and reduce the risk of litigation. I rest my case, your honor.
Just don’t say that you’re sorry someone is unhappy or mad. To me, that’s infuriating and borderline condescending.
When I eventually spoke to my patio contractor, he did apologize. He said he could see why I was upset.
That didn’t get my wheels turning and make me think I could sue him. Instead, it brought my temperature down a few degrees. But I was still pissed, and I wouldn’t have been if I had gotten an apology right away.
Never Say There’s Nothing You Can Do. Never.
The second thing that made me mad was that he didn’t offer any kind of remedy. The first thing he said was that cracks are inevitable and “there’s not much we can do with it.”
There’s always something that can be done. Period.
In my case, the contractor could have offered to come out and look at the crack, which he eventually did. He even offered steps that could be taken to address it, although none seem particularly promising.
But there’s something.
The things we can or should do for our customers can vary. Maybe they should get a partial or full refund, a discount on a future purchase, a replacement product or service, etc. At the very least, they deserve your time and effort to take a closer look at whatever they’re complaining about.
There’s no excuse for doing nothing.
What Does This Have to Do with Marketing?
Marketing today is as much about building relationships as it is about closing sales. We devote a lot of time, resources and dollars to earning the trust of people so they’ll hire us or refer us when the need arises.
Our initial responses to unhappy customers can determine whether we’ll be able to maintain their trust and earn future business and referrals from them.
Responding thoughtfully with sympathy, compassion and solutions, even if you feel you did nothing wrong, will go a long way towards salvaging the relationship and, yes, reduce the risk of legal entanglements.
If you respond callously, get defensive and defect blame, say goodbye to that customer and any potential referrals. Say goodbye to the marketing investment that was used to earn their trust. Say hello to negative online reviews and social media comments.
Dealing with unhappy customers on the fly is risky and potentially costly. Every business should have a formal process and training for dealing with customer complaints – on the phone, in person, by email and through social media.
At the very least, say you’re sorry, sympathize with the customer, and tell them what you’re prepared to do to make them happy.