Delivering Bad News to Customers (and How to Turn it into Great Customer Service)

Like many consumers, I love recommending brands that surprise and delight me, particularly when a company offers great customer service.

For example, if a brand offers a lifetime warranty, I take that promise literally. It’s no wonder, then, that I’m dedicated to The North Face. My brand loyalty was tested a few years ago when my favorite raincoat began absorbing, rather than repelling, water. I mailed my ten-year-old jacket—no tags, no receipt, no proof of purchase—to The North Face’s warranty department for inspection. A week later, I received a generous coupon from The North Face in the mail. Surprised and delighted indeed, I bought a new jacket that I still wear and love today.

Not long ago, I noticed my son’s Jansport backpack had a hole in the bottom panel. Knowing Jansport offered a lifetime warranty, I mailed in the pack for repair. Due to some mix up, Jansport sent back the women’s version of my son’s backpack. I called customer service to explain, and without hesitation, the agent sent me a replacement pack—and told me to keep the women’s bag, free of charge. I’m now the proud owner of three Jansport backpacks for the price of two. It’s hard to believe I’ll ever need another bag in this lifetime, but if I do, you can bet it will be a Jansport.

Here’s the thing: In both of these instances, I was a customer with a problem. The way these companies responded—quickly, efficiently, and graciously—left me singing their praises to friends and family, and even on social media. In fact, I ended up feeling far more brand devotion than I did when everything was going right.

I ended up feeling far more brand devotion than I did when everything was going right.

How customer complaints build brand loyalty

Turns out there’s an official term to explain my lovin’ feelings: the Service Recovery Paradox, or SRP. Simply put, when a company pulls out all the stops to solve a customer problem, that customer ultimately feels better about the brand than if there hadn’t been an issue in the first place.

Therein lies the paradox.

For retailers, understanding this behavior is more than just a reminder to resolve a customer’s problem quickly, easily, and with a real or virtual smile. It’s also a reminder about the importance of engaging and communicating openly and transparently with consumers throughout a purchase or returns journey. It seems customers really want to hear from brands, particularly when it comes to tracking and delivery of an order. Case in point: A recent Narvar benchmark report found customers who requested additional SMS or Facebook Messenger alerts about shipping and delivery ultimately rated their brand experience 18% higher than those getting fewer pings.

The opportunity—and the challenge—for brands, then, is twofold: to set realistic consumer expectations and then manage them politely, efficiently, and honestly—no matter what happens. Of course, if every step of the shipping and delivery process is smooth, customer engagement is easy. Alerts and notifications simply give consumers positive, timely updates such as “Your package has shipped!” and “Almost there!” or “Signature required” and “It’s at your doorstep.”

For shipping and delivery, no news is worse than bad news

Unfortunately, not every journey is smooth. A shipping or delivery hiccup might be a slight delay due to weather or an attempted-but-failed delivery of a signature-required package. Or it might be a more serious issue, like a package that’s been damaged, refused, or cancelled due to suspected fraud. Consumers know such issues are rarely a retailer’s fault, but guess what? They still attribute the negative experience directly to the brand itself.

When things veer off-course, it more important than ever for brands to remember the SRP and kick their customer service and engagement into high gear. My experiences with The North Face and Jansport illustrate brands putting service first regardless of when a purchase was made. So what happens when a problem pops up during the shipping or delivery process, when the customer isn’t even aware (yet) that there’s even a problem? That’s exactly when brands should proactively reach out with accurate information and real-time notifications to let consumers know something’s gone awry. In this case, no news is definitely worse than bad news.

Consumers know such issues are rarely a retailer’s fault, but guess what? They still attribute the negative experience directly to the brand itself.

Early alerts simply make customers’ lives simpler

It’s not rocket science to see how early alerts help make customers’ lives easier. If I’ve ordered a gift that’s delayed, for example, a timely notification lets me buy a replacement gift or print out a picture of the present that’s currently en route. Either way, I don’t have to arrive at a party empty-handed. If I get a text about an incoming delivery I won’t be home to receive, I can ask a neighbor to sign for it or request it be rerouted to my office. Any brand that lets me know where my package actually is in the delivery process—especially when it’s not where it’s supposed to be—is going to earn my trust and loyalty in the long run.

Every customer expects their order to arrive quickly and on time, and every retailer should strive to make that happen. But when it’s just not possible, retailers must proactively keep their customers happy and that relationship strong by managing expectations with honest, realistic communications and alerts. (Tip: Why not offer a coupon for a future shopping discount or free shipping on the next purchase to help take the sting out of delivering bad news?)

We’ve all heard that information is power. When it comes to retailers openly sharing information with consumers like me all the way through our shopping journey, that power should never be underestimated.