A Fundamental Rule of Customer Service

Way back in February 2018, I backed a project on Kickstarter. It was the very first Kickstarter project I backed. And I learned something from it.

If you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, it’s a platform that people can use to fund projects and that other people can use to get good deals on items by investing in a project that doesn’t exist yet (and that isn’t available in stores). The creator makes a post about their project and offers ‘rewards’ for people who back the project with different amounts of money. Once the project is fully funded, the creator gets the money, begins producing the thing, and then starts sending the rewards out to their backers. So, for example, someone who wants to create a board game might offer a copy of that game—at a significantly reduced price—to backers. Creators get the capital they need. Backers get something they want for less than it will cost once it hits stores. Everyone wins.

The project I backed was a bag from a company called Använda. What I backed was a large version of a burgundy colored bag. You can see a picture of it to the left. They promised a large bag (19.7in high by 13.8in wide by 9.1in deep) that could be carried multiple ways, had YKK zippers, was well-designed, was comfortable, and that wasn’t a wearable logo.

I had a couple of messenger bags. But the idea of a bag that I could use as a messenger or a backpack appealed to me. Plus, the muted red of a burgundy bag would add a pop of color to my getup. So I backed the project and expected to have my bag by June… or, at least, late summer or early fall.

And then things started going wrong.

Over the ensuing months, I learned that the bag wouldn’t be quite as large as promised, that it would be a significantly brighter red, that the zippers would come from a different company, that there would be quite a bit of branding on the bag, and that it would be late… very, very late.

Some of that is normal for a Kickstarter campaign. Unexpected things come up during production, and international shipping logistics can be complicated. Changes have to be made and delays are all but inevitable. It’s part of life.

But Använda… oh, Använda. Where Använda really messed up was communication.

You see, there’s a fundamental rule in customer service: you want to find and fix any problems before the customer even knows that there is a problem. And when the customer does find a problem (or if the customer hasn’t noticed it, but you can’t fix it before they find out about it), you should be honest about it, apologize, and work with the customer to make things right.

That isn’t what Använda did. Instead, they waited until customers—well, backers really… investors—noticed. Then they claimed to not know what was going on. Or they made excuses. Or they lied. Or they went silent. The bag measurements suddenly included the D-rings. The color was really more attractive. Or the zippers were an upgrade. Or the holiday delayed the bags. Or… whatever.

And a lot of people got very mad. And some people initiated chargebacks on their credit cards. And some people started writing unpleasant reviews of a bag they didn’t have yet and a company that had let them down.

Yes, this is one of those unpleasant reviews. But there’s an important lesson here for anyone who works in customer service. That includes nonprofit fundraisers (who need to satisfy their donors) and pastors (who need to satisfy their congregants) and a lot of other people who might not think that they’re in customer service: avoiding the problem—making excuses, going silent, or making misrepresentations—almost always makes the problem worse. It is far better for us to own our mistakes and find solutions.

And I’ll be up front. I’ve been on the receiving end of the complaints. I’ve failed to make good on promises. I’ve tried to avoid responsibility. But it’s a bad move that just brings more trouble.

And it’s also true that the customer isn’t always right. There are times—especially as a pastor—when we have to push people. Sometimes, those people will be angry. It happens.

But the fundamental rule of customer service is still there and it still works. When it comes to customers, be honest, apologize, and work to make things right. When it comes to congregants, be honest, acknowledge what they’re feeling (and apologize if that’s appropriate), and work to repair the relationship.

And maybe that works in every relationship. Maybe that’s just a good rule for life.

Be honest. Acknowledge. Repair.

It’s simple, really.

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