Let Your Customers Be Part of the Solution

Work Together to Solve Problems, and Bond in the Process

October 5, 2009

Don’t try to hide problems from customers—that never works. And don’t just tell them there is a problem without seeking their help in finding a work-around or an outright solution.


When a problem arises, look to your customers to help you come up with a solution. They will feel good about themselves and about you!


One Airline Got It Wrong

About eight years ago, when we were still pub-lishing hardcopy newsletters, I wrote an editorial contrasting the customer experience I had flying two different airlines in the midst of a snowy winter’s trip. Basically, my United flight from Vancouver was delayed, making me very concerned that I’d miss my connection in Denver, which was to bring me to Atlanta. No one from the airline would tell us what the problem was (Weather? Equipment? Poltergeists?), and we were pretty much chastised for even asking. When we finally arrived in Denver, the connecting flight had also been delayed, so I was able to run to a different terminal and (barely) board before take off. And I was actually yelled at for being so late! When I asked an attendant why he thought we hadn’t told what was going on, he said that probably the airline didn’t want to give wrong information, and it was better to keep us in the dark.

Another Does It Right

Contrast that with the Delta flight from Atlanta to Boston (home). It was delayed, but we were informed that there was a snow storm on the route between the two cities. We received updates about every 10 minutes. When we finally boarded, the captain came on, and in a friendly tone told us that, if we all settled in quickly, we would be able to get into the long line of aircraft waiting to take off sooner. We did as he asked, and after a few minutes of taxiing, he thanked us for our cooperation and let us know that we were seventh in line for take off. If we hadn’t been so cooperative, we would have been much further back in line.

There were delays on the runway, but, again, the captain kept us informed of every change (runway is closed; runway is open; only two airlanes are avail-able; now only one; etc.), and encouraged us to remain seated, ready to move as soon as possible. We did our best to help out this lovely man.

At last we heard him say the wonderful words, “Crew, prepare for take off.” And we were airborne. All the passengers applauded as he came on the air and said, “Thank you for your cooperation. By working together, we were able to make this work.”

People Make the Difference

This is not a condemnation of United—upon which I have had some great experiences along with the bad—or an endorsement of Delta—upon which I have had some not-so-great experiences along with the good. It was the people involved who made the difference. And, particularly, it was the attitude of asking for your customers to be part of the solution rather than hiding the problems from them.


I was reminded of this experience a few weeks ago during a client engagement that took place at a lovely hotel (part of the Kimpton chain). We spent three days in a very nice conference room. The facility was excellent, and the food was great. The service was outstanding. However, on the third day, we were warned that a neighboring conference room was booked for a sales motivation meeting that afternoon, and would be very loud. Aside from warning us, and suggesting that we keep the door closed, we weren’t given any other options—we would have to put up with the noise.

It seems to me that this was an excellent opportunity for the hotel to ask us, the customers, to be part of the solution by coming up with potential ideas for making things better. We were only seven people—how about putting us in a guest suite with a conference table? How about giving us a table at the restaurant? Even if none of these ideas worked, we would have felt like part of the team and respected the hotel for working with us to ensure a good customer experience. At least, give us some free cookies!


So what are the lessons here?

1. Let the customers know when there is a problem. Don’t try to hide it. Eventually, they will be aware of it and resent that you kept them clueless.

2. Give customers as much information as they need to understand the problem and reorganize their plans and processes to circumvent it or to think of a way to solve it.

3. Encourage your customers to be part of the solution. Ask for ideas. You don’t have to take every suggestion as long as you can explain why it won’t work (e.g., the restaurant is undergoing renovations and will be even louder); the customers won’t be angry.

4. Thank them for their cooperation, and make them feel good about their contribution. The personal relationship established by working together towards a common goal is immeasurable and leads to loyalty and customer longevity.

5. Finally, give them “cookies.” Reward your understanding and cooperative clients with some gesture of appreciation. Leave them with a sweet taste in their mouths.

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