After the SNAFU Comes Damage Control

By June Campbell

Doing Damage Control When the Storm is Over

What do you do when your online business suffers from a major screw -up and your email is full of complaints from irate customers? In other words, you are recovering from what the military people used to call a SNAFU - an acronym for Situation Normal: All Fouled Up.

Oh, this never happens in your business, you say? You are far too competent and well organized to allow things to go wrong. Okay, then. But for those of you who are a little more, er, truthful…. this article on damage control is for you.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the old saying goes. We all do what we can to prevent these glitches from happening. But despite our best plans, Internet technologies are complex and prone to difficulties from time to time. Sooner or later, we are all faced with the need to control damage.

I've just had a week where the gods of technology conspired against me. First, my merchant account reseller had technological difficulties. Persons trying to conduct credit card transactions from my site encountered any number of frustrating and irritating responses. I also accept transactions using a telephone billing service. Surprisingly, this service developed glitches of its own at the same time that the merchant reseller service was having problems. Then, to put the icing on the cake, my Internet Service Provider had troubles and email delivery was delayed for up to three days. Consequently, people emailing me to complain about whatever problems they had encountered on my site received no answer and perceived that they were being ignored.

When the email finally got through, I was bombarded with complaints ranging from mild to furious. It seemed that Big Byte, the Patron Saint of Technology had abandoned me!

Situations like this cause far more damage than immediately meets the eye. First, there is the direct loss of sale revenue at the time the problem occurs. Secondly, there is the loss of goodwill. Each customer who has a bad experience is likely to spread the word to several other people -- and if they post their complaints to a mailing list or a news group, it can mean that thousands of other people will get to hear bad things about you. And finally, you lose the repeat sales that might have happened over an extended period of time.

Clearly, when a SNAFU happens, your immediate priority is making things right with your customers.

This is my recommended plan for damage control:

1. As soon as possible, contact each individual who has complained, or who you believe may have encountered problems. Make each contact a personal one. Avoid using form letters or mail merges. If the situation warrants it, make a phone call instead of using email. You need personal interaction to offset the perception that you are unresponsive and unreachable.

2. Apologize and take responsibility for the mix up. Explain what happened, if appropriate, but remember that these people had problems at your site, regardless of whether the problems were beyond your control. You are responsible for seeing that their concerns are addressed.

3. Tell the customer that you understand their anger and frustration. Most people find it difficult to remain hostile if you acknowledge the validity of their anger.

4. Offer restitution. Assure the customer that you will honor their wishes - whether it means ensuring prompt product delivery or refunding payment.

5. Give them something for their troubles. In my case, I offered certain customers free products or extra products to make up for their inconvenience.

6. Follow up later to see if they are satisfied with the result.

It's a fair amount of work, yes, but consider it an investment in your business's future.

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