In the normal course of business, no matter how awesome you are at making your customers happy, inevitably something will eventually go wrong. A customer will be mistreated, misunderstood, or inconvenienced, and they will complain about it—whether directly or on any number of review websites.
When it happens, how you respond could make the difference between losing that customer—along with the 8-10 people he or she directly tells about the experience—or turning their frustration into satisfaction and brand loyalty.
Losing their business is bad news for both of you. But about 80% of customers will stick with you if you handle their complaint in a way that feels fair to them. If you do so immediately, that number jumps into the upper nineties. So look at writing an apology letter to a disgruntled customer as an opportunity to transform a lose-lose situation into a win-win. The following rules will help you do it right.
1. Put the customer’s needs first
When someone criticizes you, it’s easy to become defensive. But in a business situation, when dealing with an upset customer, you need to step back and look at the big picture.
Think about it: what will affect your bottom line more? Accepting the criticism, apologizing, and doing what it takes to satisfy the customer, or losing the customer and all the future purchases they could have made? The answer should be obvious. If they like you, they’ll come back to you again and again. If they hate you, they’ll try to make sure others don’t come back either.
And the best way to bring them back to liking you? Make them feel that you’re putting them first. How do you do that? To start with…
2. Look at the situation from their perspective
It’s a fact of life and business that the old adage about the customer always being right isn’t really true. Customers get things wrong sometimes. Maybe the situation they’re complaining about is actually their fault.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter who is factually at fault. What matters is their perception—of what happened, and of your business. So, to see how best to serve them (and hopefully to keep them as a customer), take the time to step into their place and see the situation from their point of view. Doing so will help you understand what made them upset so that you know what to apologize for—and how to prevent it from happening in the future.
3. No excuses!
Don’t try to make yourself look better by explaining the problem away or shifting the blame elsewhere. Take FULL responsibility. Remember, you’re putting the customer first! That means accepting the criticism they offer you as an opportunity to serve them better by addressing their needs. Under no circumstances should you even imply that the situation is their fault.
4. Establish goodwill with a personal greeting and acknowledgment
Now that we’ve got some ground rules laid out, it’s time to start writing the letter itself. If writing isn’t your strong suit, many of the best sites for writing help can provide you with top-notch writing services for whatever your business needs.
Your goal in the opening of the letter is to create goodwill, and that’s hard when you start off by calling them “Dear Customer.” Start your letter of apology with a personalized greeting, using the customer’s name, and then thank them for letting you know about the issue in question.
5. Apologize and empathize
This is where seeing from the customer’s perspective really comes in handy: empathize with the feelings that caused them to complain, and apologize for the actions or situation that caused those feelings. Don’t let yourself come across as reluctant about it either! Apologize genuinely and wholeheartedly. Describe the problem briefly, and assure them that you are committed to correcting it.
6. Explain the cause
Briefly, explain the problem’s cause, but be careful! There are landmines here. Keep it brief, or you risk wasting the customer’s time. Take care to avoid inadvertently blaming them for what went wrong, or your explanation will seem like a lame excuse and your apology will come off insincere. And stick to details relevant and important to your customer, not on what keeps you from meeting their expectations or makes your job hard.
7. Propose a solution
Describe, clearly and specifically, what action you will take or have taken to fix the problem. Assure the customer that it won’t happen again, and why it’s important to you and your company to ensure that it doesn’t—remember, this is about serving the customer. You want them to be satisfied and be able to rely on you.
This is also a good place in your apology letter to include a gesture of goodwill, such as a gift certificate or a discount on a future purchase, to help reduce the customer’s negative feelings.
If, for any reason, you’re not able to resolve the problem to your customer’s complete satisfaction, explain why. But don’t forget rule #6—keep it brief, keep it relevant, and keep the responsibility on yourself.
8. Close with appreciation and goodwill
Finish up by reminding your reader that you respect and appreciate them. If it makes sense to do so, repeat your apology. Make it clear that you want to maintain a good relationship with the customer, and that you’re committed to doing what it takes to do so.
Remember: an unhappy customer isn’t the end of the world, but handling the situation properly is critical. Keep these rules in mind when preparing apology letters, and both your customers and your bottom line will thank you.