Responding to Problems - Craft Your Message

According to the American Express Global Customer Service Barometer, 59% of customers are willing to try a new service for a better customer service experience. Similarly, 70% of US customers are willing to spend more money with a company that provides excellent customer service. Responding to problems is a powerful customer service tactic that can lead customers to see you as a high-quality brand.

Actually responding to a person who has experienced a problem has a great psychological effect. If you response is well-crafted, it will acknowledge that the problem the person encountered is real. Also, your response will validate their feelings about the problem and explain how you're going to make things better. By acknowledging the problem and validating their feelings, you demonstrate your genuine interest in building a better product for your user.

In this post, I'll give you a template for crafting an impactful response to users' problems. Additionally, I will provide an example message that I would send in response to a mobile app crash. The right message could very well turn an unhappy detractor into a zealously happy customer.

Listen before responding

Before you can respond to a problem, you need to listen very carefully to what your customer is telling you. Especially in face-to-face interactions, you need to actively listen. That is, acknowledge what is said, ask clarifying questions, and repeat facts to seek confirmation of important details. While this gives you needed information, active listening also lends itself to acknowledging the problem and validating how the person feels about it.

In other conversational mediums such as email, read the message at least twice: once objectively, and once empathetically. When you objectively read a message, you are not trying to read between the lines. You are simply reviewing facts as they have been reported. Enter the message with as few preconceived notions as possible. If you're a developer, don't yet assume software problems are due to a recent code change. Pretend you've never seen the code at all. Only accept facts that come directly from the user. Objectively listening may clue you in to a reported problem more clearly than your personal knowledge of the system.

The second time around, empathize with the user when you read their message. Do read between the lines. Ask yourself what they're trying to do. Consider that they may be in a rush, or that they just got interrupted by a crashing app. Do they sound happy or unhappy? Have you had past interactions with the customer? If so, how have they previously responded to problems? When responding to problems, the best response will include both an objective solution and subjective affirmation.

Thank your user for their feedback

First and foremost, your response should start with a thank you. If that feels cliché, perhaps your "thank you" statement needs more detail to come across as genuine. Consider explaining the outcomes of the user providing the feedback. Did they just save your skin? Did they help other users somehow by alerting you to a critical problem? If nothing else, if you're unsure of the overall impact of the user's problem, you can thank them for giving you a chance to fix their reported problem and make a better product.

Acknowledge the problem is real

This may sound like insanely basic advice, but it is important that you acknowledge that there was an actual problem. If you gloss over this fact—or leave it to be an assumed fact instead of explicitly stating it— your customer may perceive your response as insincere. Attorneys and PR people are great at helping companies skirt around a sincere admission of fault, but I'd rarely recommend being very guarded about a known problem when discussing it with an individual customer who just reported it to you. Ensure that you explicitly state that the user's report is a real problem. This leads us to validation of how the user feels about experiencing the problem.

Validate the user's feelings

Going back to empathy, consider how the user feels after their negative experience. They used your product, but encountered some sort of problem that prevented them from doing what they wanted. "Frustrating" is a solid default word for describing negative experiences. On that note, ensure you are framing feelings in terms of the experience, not the person. "I'm sorry you are frustrated" does not ring as pleasantly as "I'm sorry you had a frustrating experience." The former implies the problem lies with the user, whereas the latter implies the problem is with the product. Similarly, powerful emotional words are best to be avoided in responding to problems. If you say something is "anger-inducing" or "makes everyone mad," you are describing an emotional response that may not match the vocabulary the customer would use. How would you like it if a customer support rep called you "angry"?

That said, people do have feelings and you need to validate them. Just remember to describe emotions in terms of the problem ("this bug is frustrating"), not the person ("you are frustrated because of this bug"). People want to be heard, not diagnosed.

Briefly explain how you will fix the problem

Once you've acknowledged the problem and its repercussions, tell the customer what you are doing about it. It's not enough to empathize with people. You've made a problematic product or experience, and they want to know that it's not going to happen again. This explanation can be as simple as "I've updated the site, so you won't see this problem any more." You can get more detailed if you want, but shy away from technical explanations unless your product is geared toward techies that want to know that level of detail.

Offer the user something for their trouble

The aforementioned American Express Global Customer Service Barometer tells us of another reason why we need this focus on customer service. Poor customer service has a very real cost to your business. 78% of US customers may not complete a purchase due to poor customer service. In other words, responding to problems can make you money. Therefore, consider methods to decrease the likelihood of losing a currently unhappy user, even if there is some associated cost with retaining them. Consider payment credits, upgrades, or even company swag ("I squashed a bug for Company X, and all I got was this lousy shirt!"). Responding to problems with good news ("here's something for your trouble!") helps move customers from satisfied to thrilled.

Especially in SaaS businesses, you need to consider the lifetime value of your customer. However, in any business it's going to be cheaper to retain an existing user than acquire a new user. These details may change your perspective on how much you're willing to give away to retain a good customer. If you had to give away $20 now to secure $200 next year, would you? I know I would.

Example response to address a user's problem

Using the advice above, I've crafted an example message to demonstrate how I would respond to a problem. This message is in response to a hypothetical mobile app crash that a user experienced and reported via Critic's in-app bug reporting feature.

Thank you so much for reporting this. I had not seen the issue before, but your feedback helped me find the problem before it was seen by a lot of people. Having an app crash on you is really frustrating, and I apologize that you had to experience that. I published an update to the App Store just now, so you should see a fix for this soon. For all of your help, I'd like to credit your account with a free month of service. Please let me know if you encounter any other problems. Thank you for helping me build a better app!

Notice how this message hits on all the points mentioned previously. I thank the user for sending me a bug report. Then I acknowledge that they experienced a real problem. I also state that this problem had gone unnoticed until they report it, and indicate the positive impact their bug report has had on other users. Thanks to the user's report, other people won't experience the same issue. Also, I validate how frustrating it is to experience an app crash. Additionally, I make a point to explain what I've done to fix this problem so it won't be a problem again in the future. Finally, I offer something in exchange for the user's trouble.

How does this example response make you feel?

Imagine how you would feel after receiving this message. You may say you feel heard or respected since someone took the time to write you. (Note: If you have a fancy title, show it off in your signature. If the CEO is responding to problems, customers will know they are important to your business.) Also, you'd likely be happy that you helped solve a problem for other people. Perhaps you feel relieved that you're going to have a better product experience in the future. Additionally, you are likely thrilled to receive a free month of service.

Need help responding to problems?

Ensure you're gathering all of the information you need to help you when responding to problems. A Critic free trial can help you get what you need. I am happy to help you with responding to problems if you want feedback on your message to users. Send me a note and we can take a few moments to craft a solid response to your customers.

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