When Things Don't Go as Planned, It's All About Your Response

Posted by Tom Squeri on Mar 18, 2015

Life doesn’t always go according to plan, and the same holds true for business. We would all like our customer service and product quality to be flawless, and we strive to build management systems to assure that result. Sometimes, though, despite our best efforts, something fails and we face upset customers. One of my favorite quotations is, “Life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we respond.”   The quote is attributed to many sources, including famed college football coach Lou Holtz, and acknowledges the truth that we can’t control many of the challenges life throws at us, but it’s what we do with them that counts. 

In business, how we deal with problems or complaints can make the difference between losing a valued customer and building a great relationship. We’ve seen politicians get caught doing something bad, and then dig themselves into much deeper holes by responding with a cover-up instead of the truth. On the flip side, we are inspired by stories of people who overcome severe health or other personal challenges to become better versions of themselves. In the same way, maintaining and strengthening customer relationships is about how we respond to problems when they arise.

 A true story about outdoor retail giant L.L. Bean perfectly illustrates this point. In 1911, Leon Bean saw the need for a waterproof boot for trekking around the bogs of Maine. He developed the Maine Hunting Shoe, made from a rubber foot section sewn to a lace-up leather top. Customers loved the design idea and quickly bought his entire stock. However, within the year 90 percent were returned because of leaks in the seams.

Bean could have dealt with this disaster in any number of ways, including scrapping the venture and leaving his customers with leaky boots. Many firms facing such a high failure rate would certainly respond that way. But Bean did the right thing - gave a full refund, and fixed the manufacturing problem. Customers were so impressed with his response that they bought more boots, and today L.L. Bean is one of the oldest and largest outdoor retail firms in the world.

Solving a customer’s problem or complaint can build more enduring loyalty than flawless service in the first place. The key to keeping and building customer loyalty is to respond to the upset by doing the right thing. The correct response proves to customers that when things are wrong, they can count on you to make them right. Life—and business—is 90 percent about how we respond.

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