What Do I Do Now?

When Customers Are in Crisis, How Well Do You Support Them?

June 28, 2012

Crises are great opportunities to gain customer loyalty for life. How your brand and your organization rally to help customers in crisis is often the make or break point in any customer relationship. Be aware, however, that what your customers perceive as crisis situations may be different than what you think they are. And they don’t only want a remedy to the problem, they want you to alleviate their stress, fear, and anxiety.

Crises are great opportunities to gain customer loyalty for life. How your brand and your organization rally to help customers in crisis is often the make or break point in any customer relationship. Think not only about typical crisis situations that your customers might face, like accidents and injuries, but also scenarios that will be perceived as crises, such as a key piece of equipment breaking down during a seasonal rush or forgetting an important birthday. And be sure to look beyond the obvious things that customers need to remedy the situation to non-result-oriented things that your customers may want, such as being able to track the steps that are leading to their desired outcome. And never underestimate the empathy factor that can only be provided by people. All the streamlined processes in the world won’t alleviate the anxiety that customers feel in crisis situations as well as a comforting voice on the phone does.

AAA’s Mobile App

AAA's Mobile App

(Click on image to enlarge.)

© 2012 AAA.com

AAA’s mobile app for iPhone and Android lets you contact the company for roadside assistance, providing your location and emergency need without having to wait in what could be a lengthy phone queue. But, although the app also provides maps of the area, approved AAA repair locations, and other valuable features when you’re in trouble on the road, there doesn’t appear to be a way to track the progress of the tow truck that is coming to help you. This type of tracking would reduce follow-up phone calls to the AAA contact center and would also significantly lower customer anxiety.


Help! My car has just broken down out on a country road. It’s dark; I’m alone; and I’m not really sure where I am.

Sounds like the beginning of a horror film, no? Well, just 25 years or so ago, it was a horror-making experience. Before cell phones, GPS, smart apps that contact the right people, you’d be stuck out there until a good Samaritan happened along…if it was a good Samaritan.

But times have changed. And technology has given us tools to deal with the unexpected, to find us when we’re lost, to summon help when we need it.

The thing, however, that pure technology can’t do is help us deal with the crisis and figure out “what do I do now?” And therein lies the opportunity—and challenge—for your organization. When your customers are in crisis, how well do you support them?

Multiple Types of Crises

When we all think of crisis situations, certain scenarios come quickly to mind: car accidents, injuries, illness, cars breaking down in the middle of nowhere, being lost. But there are other situations that evoke similar “crisis” responses in customers where they are equally in need of help. Things like:

• My flight is going to be late and I’m going to miss my job interview!

• I double paid a large bill by mistake and my checking account is now overdrawn!

• I’ve just been arrested (unjustly, of course)!

• I forgot to renew my car registration and I’m leaving on a road trip today!

• I just failed the final for a course that is required for my major and I’m supposed to graduate this year!

• We have a rush order and a key piece of equipment is being finicky!

• I’m escorting a group of young kids at a theme park by myself, and two of the five kids aren’t tall enough to ride most rides!

• I forgot my girlfriend’s birthday and I need the perfect gift by tonight!

What Is the Customer Scenario?

In every case, the customer’s goal—what your customers want to achieve—is “Everything is taken care of and everyone is happy!” And what they universally want and need are:

• Immediate steps to remedy the situation

• Next steps to complete the remedy and achieve the desired outcome for their emergency scenario

CONDITIONS OF SATISFACTION. But there are also some non-result-oriented things that your customers may want on the road to their outcome—things we call Conditions of Satisfaction1. Common Conditions of Satisfactions in a “crisis” scenario include:

• I want to be reassured that everything will work out

• I want to be able to see how things are being handled

• I want to understand what went wrong

• I want to be assured that it won’t happen again

• I want to be compensated for any loss

• I want empathy and support

• I want a great story and to be the hero of the tale

So the question is, do you have the people, information, processes, and technology in place to get your customers through their crises and return them to their happy place?

PEOPLE. Note that I put people first. Even in the era of self-service, when customers are faced with a crisis, often, the first thing they want to do is talk to someone. When we’re in a pickle, we feel the need to connect with a real person for a variety of reasons, such as:

Trust. Even though we may start a remedy process via self-service, when we’re afraid, or nervous, or worried, we don’t necessarily trust an automated system to come through. Although we have no problem believing that an item we purchased online will be delivered to the right address, when we’re waiting for a tow truck, an ambulance, or a financial adjustment, we want to know that a human being we can trust as our advocate is making sure that everything arrives at the right place at the right time.

Support. Many of us simply need to talk to someone who will listen and care. We want an empathetic voice on the phone; someone who will listen to our stories and reassure us that they understand and will help in any way they can. Think about a doctor’s bedside manner; it doesn’t impact her medical knowledge or technically improve the care you will receive, but it sure helps you feel better.

Release. And sometimes customers are just angry, and yelling at a screen or typing in all caps just doesn’t provide the ability to vent and release all that negative emotion. I don’t mean that your customer-facing reps should take abuse, but empathy and patience (and a good, shall we say, “phoneside” manner) go a long way to help an angry and frustrated customer get past the rage and move on.

In all cases, having good people supporting your customers in a time of crisis helps improve and nurture a positive relationship, which, of course, leads to more loyalty and more business. Your people should be prepared to meet all the conditions of satisfaction listed above, whether by phone, IM, or online chat (with a person, not an automated agent). And that means that they need to have the right information at their fingertips. It also means that for emergency scenarios, you need a human being available 24 x 7. Nothing is more upsetting to a customer in crisis than to be told that there’s no one available to talk to right now. You want them to be able to press a single phone key to get a live operator and have someone respond ...


1) We learned this phrase from Fernando Flores whose “4-step dance” for all human interactions includes agreeing on the conditions of satisfaction.

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