mending fencesYou messed up with a client. To mend fences, you consider the flowers or bottle of wine approach.


Situations like these can’t be effectively resolved with anything that can be shipped to your client’s office with a quaint card. So, how do you not only salvage but also improve a damaged customer relationship?

The first step is to assess what went wrong.

“First, you have to view mistakes as learning opportunities,” said Tim Peek, a corporate coach and strategy consultant who frequently works with organizations looking to improve sales team performance. “Take a deep breath, step back, and ask what’s to be learned from the situation.”

When things get twisted, your first instinct may be to avoid the issue entirely, pretending it never happened. Don’t. The real damage is revealed by having a tough conversation with the other party, and those conversations are equally tough to start. It might be easier, however, if you look at the conversation as a sort of “reset” button.

“One of the first steps to repair a broken customer relationship is ‘re-starting’ the sales process by listening,” said Annette Jacobs, former president, West Area, for Cricket Wireless, responsible for multichannel, consumer-based distribution that produced more than $1.5 billion in sales annually. “So many times there are conclusions drawn that may or may not solve the relationship.”

Determine the real problem

Asking questions helps clarify what your customers perceive as the real problem, which may vary (and vary wildly) from what you think might be the real problem.

Conversations are as much about emotion as they are about factual content,” said Peek.

When you’ve humbled yourself enough to be able to ask tough questions and listen to your client, pay close attention to his or her emotional responses. How did your client feel about the mistake? When you can get on an emotional level with your customer after a problem, you’re both coming from a place of vulnerability. It’s there that you can work to build an even stronger relationship — together.

But what kind of questions will lead you to those emotional responses?

Ask open-ended questions—no judgment, no defensive comments, no rationalizations, no blame,” said Jacobs. “Your customer or client doesn’t care. Also realize it is rare that the repair can be completed during one meeting. Be prepared to provide a follow-up date and on-going progress reports on the solutions. Rebuilding the relationship starts with reliability and credibility and understanding that no company or product is perfect. When you combine that product with customer service, however, loyalty and repeat orders can be a part of your future.”

When to engage superiors

Finally, a helping hand from a higher up might help put a few nails in those new fence boards. But Peek advises using caution when asking for the help of superiors in repairing relationships with clients.

“It only makes sense to bring in a superior in a few situations,” he said. “First, if they’re going to bring value to the situation. If the salesperson is solely responsible for the screw-up, it’s rare a manager will have anything to add. Secondly, a higher up can bring value if the situation involves other areas of the company that are out of your control, such as legal or design. A manager or executive can play liaison between the client and those departments more effectively than sales.”

So, the next time something heads south, stop and ask: What can I learn here? With an open mind, strategic questions and a willingness to accept responsibility, you will be well on your way to building an even stronger relationship with your client than ever before.

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