Customer Experience News & Trends

Lessons from Obamacare: What to do after you screw up

You know it’s bad when the president of the United States has to apologize to the American people. Your company may never screw up the customer experience on the same scale as the Obamacare website debacle, but you can learn a lot from it about how to respond after a huge misstep.

The Affordable Care Act had a terrible launch that left new and prospective customers terribly disappointed.

When failed to deliver what was promised, customers were irritated. Then their patience was tested again when they had to wait longer than anticipated for the site to be fixed.

Expectations were not met. The customer experience was terrible. But the rebound was a teachable moment.

Big deal on a grand scale

In a rare move, the American people received an apology from a president.

President Barack Obama apologized for the website’s screw-ups in an effort to move forward with a better customer experience.

Here’s what we can learn from the Affordable Care Act’s introduction — and the president’s apology — to the American people:

1. Be swift

166578139Resentment will quickly grow if you wait — after knowing something has gone wrong — to fix problems your customers are experiencing. Think of the public backlash manufacturers who’ve been called to the mat by consumer protection agencies have experienced. Many of these names should ring a bell: Firestone Tire, Toyota and Johnson & Johnson.

The good news: With social media, it’s easier than ever to get the word out early and quickly that you’re fixing things. For instance, when J&P Cycles was upgrading its internal systems several years ago, the aftermarket parts and accessories retailer ran into far more technical glitches than it expected. Their website shut down for a while. Online orders were lost. But customers barely had time to get angry. The customer service team sent out a mea culpa through social media channels, explaining that something had gone wrong, apologizing for the inconvenience and asking customers to bear with them.

Within minutes, customers were sharing words of encouragement and reminding those who were getting upset to take it easy on the beloved brand.

2. Describe the scope

Businessman Using BinocularsIn the recent Affordable Care Act debacle, President Obama spoke right to the point: “There’s no sugarcoating it. The website has been slow. People are getting stuck during the application process.”

In a few sentences he delivered the holy grail of service recovery: Admit the full problem. Don’t point fingers. Don’t try to lessen the effect of the problems.

Let customers know how the problem has affected them, any potential fallout and the implications. If you know how the situation will affect them in the long run, tell them that — especially if it’s a more positive outcome.

For instance, the president did explain that when the site is fixed it will be easier to access and navigate.

3. Get personal

137095393If you tell customers how you feel about the situation — and it’s the same way they’re feeling — you’ll show them that you’re empathetic to their problems. But this is a thin line to walk. If your feelings — whether from the CEO, customer service leader or another corporate face — seem artificial or condescending, customers will more than likely revolt.

For instance, when Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings issued an apology in response to customer backlash over subscription changes and price increases, customers were so bothered by what they perceived as his flippant attitude that they didn’t even hear the supposed apology.

Another case of poor personal expression: BP CEO Tony Hayward said after the Gulf Coast Spill, “We’re sorry for the disruption it’s caused their lives. There is no one who wants this over more than I do.” He should’ve stopped there, but he went on to say, “I would like my life back.” He gave the impression he felt sorrier for himself than others.

On the other hand, President Obama expressed the right feelings in the right way: “Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website is not working as well as it should.”

It’s not like the president was signing up for health insurance, but he made people feel like he was personally affected and in the trenches with them.

In extreme cases that affect a special minority of customers, you may even want to talk directly with customers in the wake of an issue. Elite Spice Co. of Jessup, MD, has made it a priority for a sales and customer service rep to visit customers who’ve issued repeated complaints. On the visit, the pair listens to customers’ concerns, looks at how issues affected them and responds to concerns. This has shown the company’s commitment to rebuilding the relationship and maintaining customer loyalty.

4. Give the action plan

114265176As quickly as you recognize that a problem has affected customers and likely will cause a negative experience, you want to explain what you’re doing about the issue.

President Obama may be more technically adept than any other man who’s served in the Oval Office, but odds are he doesn’t have the IT savvy to fix the website issues himself. What he did have were people who could fix it and the steps they’d take to troubleshoot the problems, and his White House officials introduced Quality Software Services, Inc., as the general contractor to oversee repairs.

It was a huge, comforting step because the administration didn’t have a single tech company overseeing the entire project until then. So the president did more than tell customers, “It’ll be fixed,” he made sure that customers knew who’d fix it and would be accountable for the customer experiences ahead.

5. Be open to complaints, questions

153456188This could be the one area where the administration has failed to make a good recovery. There isn’t a clear path for users and prospects to complain about the problems and ask more questions. Granted, users have taken to social media and mainstream media to complain about the problems. But the technical glitches and bureaucratic ways of the government in general make venting about an issue — and getting some feedback from a concerned person — difficult.

Companies that have messed up and want to make amends with customers need to be ready and willing to let customers talk about how the problems have affected their lives, businesses and circumstances.

It’s probably not an issue for social media to solve. While it’s important to respond to customer complaints on social media after a mess-up, it’s better to hear customers’ complaints personally, so they never have to turn to Facebook and Twitter.

When there’s a big problem, secure the resources needed to take more calls, reach out to customers and personally notify them and handle increased email volume. Encourage front-line professionals to focus on the quality of the call, not the quantity of calls, so they give customers as much attention as they need through the crisis.

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