In today's social media-focused marketing environment, businesses strive to keep the tone of marketing communications informal and personal. But if a business makes a misstep and intentionally says something offensive, the focus turns to customer retention strategies.
"Today it is more risky than ever to make a potential offensive statement and have that mistake go viral," says Debra Vilchis, chief operating officer of Fishman Public Relations in Northbrook, Illinois. "There is an increased sensitivity to more issues around race, gender, sexuality, politics, religion and just about any topic imaginable."
Today customer retention strategies must also take into account the fact that a mistake that formerly might have resulted in a letter to the editor appearing a few days later can quickly spin into a torrent of digital complaints that spread like wildfire.
"Now anyone anywhere can respond in real-time to anything they find offensive and in minutes they could launch an all-out attack online that could damage your business," Vilchis warns.
While every business and every offense is probably unique, these five customer retention strategies for saying "I'm sorry" can help to form a solid foundation for customer retention.
1. Be ready.
Effectively apologizing for an offensive statement starts well before offense has occurred. Think through how you will respond and have a strategy in place for when the almost-inevitable customer retention challenge arises.
—Debra Vilchis, chief operating officer, Fishman Public Relations
As part of that customer retention strategy, consider setting up an effective monitoring system to detect complaints as soon as possible. Vilchis recommends having monitoring software in place to continually sift through social and other digital media feeds for any negative comments about marketing messages.
"If a small business can't afford software, they should be diligent about manually monitoring for any potential negative comments regarding a response to something they may have done or stated to offend anyone," Vilchis says. "You can't do anything to repair your mistake if you don't know what people are saying about you."
2. Respond to the offended party's message.
Effective customer retention strategies don't ignore the customer's complaint.
"The best way to respond we have found is to recognize the user's feeling with empathy and understanding," says Robb Hecht, adjunct professor of marketing at Baruch College in New York City.
In order to limit viral spreading of a complaint, customer retention strategies may want to call for directing the upset customer to a telephone resource where they can vent further.
"Typically users just want to be recognized as being heard and that the brand has understood their concerns," Hecht says.
3. Be quick.
Any delay at all may increase the risk that a complaint will spread and perhaps go viral, Vilchis says. Ideally, a business will respond in minutes when accidental offense has occurred.
"If the offensive message was posted on a Friday, blood starts to boil immediately and before you know it, your little blunder is now a viral trending topic," Vilchis says. "The reputation you worked so hard to build can tumble down within hours. Gone are the days when you can wait until Monday to see if it calms down, or spend hours crafting a perfectly worded response."
4. Apologize—and mean it.
Strive for sincerity when implementing customer retention strategies after an offense. An apology that rings false has little chance of soothing a customer who is genuinely riled by an offensive message.
"I've seen businesses make lame attempts at disingenuous apologies that wind up being a repeat of the original error," Vilchis says. "Don't say you're sorry if you don't mean it and don't try to excuse what you did. Just as people recognize sincerity, they also know when something is not genuine."
5. Keep your tone natural.
It can be tricky to prepare an apology in advance while at the same making a response seem unforced. And your customer retention strategies may need to keep legal issues in mind. However, the best apologies will seem more conversational than formulaic.
"Your apology should come across the same as how a real person would say they're sorry to a family member, spouse, friend or co-worker," Vilchis says. "When you offend someone or a group of individuals, they're already agitated. A canned, carefully scripted message that was scrubbed of emotion by a PR pro or attorney will only make matters worse."
Whatever you decide to do after accidentally offending a customer, don't do nothing at all. When it comes to customer retention strategies, almost any effort is better than no effort.
"If someone says or does something offensive and then quickly expresses regret and apologizes, they have a chance of being forgiven," Vilchis says. "But if an offense is made and the offender does nothing, there's no reason to forgive."
Read more articles on customer feedback.