Suppose it’s an extremely busy day at work. You’ve got a pile of paperwork to process, or a long list of customers to contact or visit, or many service calls to make, or a huge project to tackle. You’re going about your day, trying to get as much as possible accomplished and to do a good job at it. Suddenly a customer arrives and approaches you with a scowl on his or her face, pointing out that an error had been made the previous day which created all sorts of problems for many people, and blaming you and/or your employees for having made the error. Your customer shouts, “What am I paying you for, if you're going to make mistakes that screw everything up?” Several of your employees and other customers are standing around, watching this scene. You know that the error wasn’t yours, because it involved a piece of work that another company had performed. You feel angry over having been accused of something you didn’t do, humiliated over having been dressed down in the open work space, disrespected because you have been a conscientious service provider who always tries to do your best, and disappointed to learn that the other company responsible for the error knows about it but has not owned up to it. What do you do?
Let’s look at your options:
1.Shouting back at your customer that it wasn’t your error.
2.Remaining silent, but slamming things around to show your anger.
3.Apologizing to your customer just to keep the peace and hoping the incident will blow over quickly.
4.Looking your customer in the eye (respectfully), acknowledging that an error had been made, and stating that you will do whatever is necessary to correct the problem. (If, in fact, you or your employees were responsible for the error, this straightforward approach is the most effective way to maintain your customer's respect despite the error. Depending on the nature of the error, you may want to offer the customer an add-on or a discount to compensate his or her for the inconvenience the error caused. For now, though, let's stick with the situation in which the error was not the fault of either you or one of your employees).
Option 1 might cost you the job and future work with that customer. Option 2 will perpetuate your customer’s current impression that you are irresponsible. If you follow Option 3, you will ignore your own feelings about the situation, running the risk that they will “come out sideways” some time in the future.
Your best bet is Option 4, because it will not fuel your customer’s current anger and it leaves the door open for you to express your feelings about the situation later. When things have cooled down, you will be able to speak with your customer privately, empathize with his or her anger over the error, and express your surprise over having been blamed because the error wasn’t yours. If you do this respectfully, you can set the record straight and maybe even get an apology from the customer! It’s possible that in the future he or she will think twice about how to handle situations in which errors have been discovered.