From Crisis to Opportunity

With yet another Carnival Cruise Lines incident causing hardships to passengers this month, the spotlight is once again being shined on the importance of customer experience. After reading about more than 4,000 people getting stranded on a cruise ship in less-than-ideal living conditions for the second time in a matter of weeks, I began to wonder how small businesses would deal with a crisis situation. Providing an exceptional customer experience can make all the difference for your company, brand, and customers, even in a potentially damaging scenario. With that in mind, here are some strategies that could help you turn a crisis into a positive situation.

1. Address the issue with empathy. We've all seen this: A company does something wrong and skirts the issue. Whether your company is a big business or a small one, your public wants an explanation, acknowledgment of the toll your actions have had on your customers, and details on the actions you're going to take to resolve the situation. Everyone makes mistakes. But how you correct yours makes all the difference.

2. Apologize. Think about how this works in your personal life. Doesn't a sincere apology go a long way? Does a sincere apology singlehandedly remedy a crisis situation in the business world? Of course not, but it will humanize your company and spokesperson, while earning confidence at a time it's needed most.

3. Exceed expectations through full transparency. Put yourself in your customer's shoes. If you were him, what would you want done to rectify the situation? Whatever the answer is, do that, plus one more thing. One of the very best things you can do to extend your relationship with that customer is to fully disclose the root causes of the issue and the steps you are taking to arrest and address it. Customers want the companies they do business with to make things right. Even when it seems nothing will help, the effort will be appreciated.

4. Keep promises and be honest. This goes along with exceeding expectations. Whatever you've promised your customers, deliver it, and deliver it well. It's as simple as that. It's better to underpromise and overdeliver than to do the reverse. Don't promise more than you can provide, and never lie through omission; you'll be found out in the end.

5. Take to the social channels. It's important to have a crisis communication plan in place before you begin to tweet and blog, but the most important thing to remember is that silence can be your worst enemy. Don't let your customers wonder what's happening. That will only upset them further. Remember, your customers are living in a world of instant information. The more prepared you are, the better.

6. Focus on the customers you do have. So often companies focus on acquiring new sales and clients. When your reputation is on the line, ensure that your current customers are the number one priority.

Let Carnival Cruise Lines be an example of the importance of having a plan to provide an exceptional customer experience during a time of crisis. Doing so will instill confidence in your company and go a long way in enhancing long-term customer loyalty.

Brad Smith is the executive vice president of customer experience for Sage North America. He has nearly 20 years of leadership experience in the Web consumer, enterprise software, and communication service provider industries. Prior to his role at Sage, he served as vice president of customer experience for Yahoo! and  held senior leadership roles with Symantec, Openwave, and Verisign.

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