What to say to an unhappy customer? "I'm sorry."

By Beth Caron

 MSNBC recently featured Great Clips CEO Rhoda Olsen and Chairman of the Board Ray Barton in a segment called “Learning From the Pros.”

The story hit on several of the business practices, values and culture that are quintessentially Great Clips: the focus on employees as the heart of the company, the use of technology to create and simplify the process of getting a haircut, and the importance of authenticity when communicating with customers and each other.

Throughout the story, Ray and Rhoda make it very clear that giving customers what they want—a great haircut at a convenient time and place—is what this franchised hair salon business is all about. But let’s face it, every once in awhile, the customer doesn’t get what they want. And that’s where the MSNBC story got really interesting!

If you know anything about Rhoda and Ray, you know they are no-nonsense, straight-from-the-heart talkers, and this was no exception. Both of them—especially Rhoda—expressed their amazement at how many organizations fail to do the most important thing when faced with an unhappy customer: apologize.

“It’s so easy to say you’re sorry,” Rhoda says. “Why can’t people just say, ‘I’m sorry. We screwed up!’”

Exactly! I am shocked at the number of times I am at a store, feeling inconvenienced or frustrated (usually about a service issue) and the person I am expressing my unhappiness to fails to acknowledge in any way that they may be responsible for a less-than-stellar customer experience. A simple, “I am sorry that you’re feeling this way,” would go so far to diffuse my exasperation—and might even bring me back to their store.

That’s how we try to approach a situation like this at Great Clips. Our intention is to respond with common sense and common courtesy. It’s in line with our mission to make customers feel connected, cared for and in control.

In the video, Ray said that when responding to an unhappy customer, it’s important not to get defensive. That reminded me of a post by HBR blogger and business psychiatrist Mark Goulston in which he offered three steps—he called them strikes—to prevent getting prickly with an agitated patron:

Strike 1 – Think of the first thing you want to say or do and don’t do that. Instead, take a deep breath. That is because the first thing you want to do is defend yourself against what you perceive as an attack, slight or offense.

Strike 2 – Think of the second thing you want to say or do and don’t do that, either. Take a second breath. That is because the second thing you want to do after being attacked is to retaliate. That is only going to escalate matters.

Strike 3 – Think of the third thing you want to say or do and then do that. That is because once you get past defending yourself and retaliating, you have a better chance of seeking a solution.

Let’s just say I’ve been trying to incorporate Strikes 1 and 2 into my argument-diffusing repertoire: Take a breath. And another. And, maybe another. Hey, it can’t hurt and it will most likely improve the situation for everyone.

When have you had to say you’re sorry to an unhappy customer?

Are you interested in knowing more about what it’s like to be a Great Clips franchisee?  Send me a note or give me a call. I’d love to talk with you!

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