How to Fix a Mistake without Losing a Customer

fix a customer mistake

Retailers, small business owners and entrepreneurs need to learn one critical skill: how to fix a mistake without losing a customer.

This past weekend, a good friend who I haven’t seen in many years was traveling a long way to visit me. My friend is horribly allergic to cats, and I have five felines! Even though I have a lovely spare bedroom in my home, there was no way she thought she could stay with me. When she called to make her travel plans, she asked me for a recommendation for an inn or quaint bed and breakfast she could stay at, and I happily provided her with the name of a local establishment that my husband and I had stayed in while our home was being built. My friend booked her room, confirmed the room, and received an email from the proprietor.  She took care of it so far in advance that they even offered her a discount on the room rate, which she happily accepted.

After a long, grueling day of travel that began at 6 a.m. and ended by arriving on the inn’s doorstep at 11 p.m., my friend discovered that not only had the inn botched her reservation, but they were completely sold out - not a single room left!

I waited with her on the doorstep of the inn, both of us nearly dead with fatigue. The owner ran to the door holding out a heavy reservation book. She insisted, over and over again, “See? It’s in my aren’t supposed to get here until TOMORROW.”

My friend and I looked at each other incredulously. Over and over again, the innkeeper insisted “It was in her book” so she was off the hook for the mistake.

Off the hook? My dear friend had been riding in buses, trains and automobiles for almost 20 hours and was standing on the doorstep of what should have been her place of refuge that night. Instead, we were being told, “See? Look in my book. I didn’t make the mistake!”

Not once did the innkeeper pause and say three simple words:

“I am sorry.”

We waited. Finally, as if it was an afterthought, the woman said, “Gee, I’m sorry but I can’t help you.”

My friend was fuming, I was fuming, and we both turned on our heels and left. Not only did the inn lose our business that evening, but they lost three days of bookings as my friend cancelled her stay, of course. We also had dinner reservations in their exclusive and expensive restaurant, which we cancelled, and we vowed never to send travelers there again.

The end of the story was a happy one, for my friend took a risk on staying at my home. I shooed the cats out, opened the windows, and thankfully, she was able to visit with us in peace.


How to Fix a Mistake without Losing a Customer

Not only did that establishment lose my friend as a customer, they lost me for life - and anyone I might recommend their inn to.  They also lost future revenues from us, for we often dine in their restaurant, especially with out of town guests.
How could they have fixed their mistake without losing a customer? Here are five tips I gleaned from the course I took in Retail Management and from my former experiences as a retail sales and marketing manager:

  1. Own the problem. Don’t blame others, don’t blame the customer, but OWN your mistake.  One of the most offensive things in our situation was the proprietor’s insistence that because my friend had changed the reservation, somehow it was her fault the room had been sold.  My friend, however, had indeed changed the reservation, but months prior, and had even called and emailed several times since then to confirm the new dates.  Somehow, the innkeepers never fixed it in their reservation book, which was how they managed to sell the room to another guest.  If she had owned her problem, she could have solved it for us...or at least made us feel better about the situation!
  2. Say you’re sorry. The first thing on your lips shouldn’t be the equivalent of “it’s not my fault!”  Instead, it should be a simple, humble and heartfelt apology: “I’m sorry.”  Said once and with humility is enough, but it should be the first thing to say.
  3. Ask the customer,  “How can I make this right?” In our case, there were no rooms available, but the proprietors made the situation worse by telephoning other inns without asking us what we wanted to do. She was telephoning inns another hour away! There was no way, after traveling for 18 hours straight, that my friend was going to spend another hour in a car.  Instead, if she had asked, “How can I make this right?” we could have discussed alternatives.
  4. Stop insisting it’s the customer’s fault.  You want to make your customer so angry they’ll never come back? Keep repeating your side of the story and ignore what the customer is saying.  When there’s a problem, the customer doesn’t want to hear your excuses, even if they’re valid. Instead, listen sympathetically to what the customer has to say. You may need to grit your teeth and let them vent for a while, but remember - you screwed up. It’s your mistake. Now you have to do what’s right to fix it!
  5. Do what you can to fix the situation. Once you’ve learned what your customer would like to do, do what you can to fix the situation. Perhaps the proprietor could have offered us a free gift certificate, dinner voucher, or something to make up for the inconvenience. She didn’t. She just kept insisting my friend had made a mistake in the reservations instead of accepting the fact that she had written down the date incorrectly.


In our case, all’s well that ends well. I had a lovely time visiting with my friend, we found out that with some extra steps she can stay with us in the future, and we spent more time together playing Scrabble, drinking hot tea, and catching up on our various interests and pursuits. But for the innkeeper, that night did not end well. If she had just taken a few simple steps, she could have won more customers instead of losing customers through a simple mistake. Learning how to fix a mistake can help you save customers in the future.



© 2014 by Jeanne Grunert. All rights reserved.  Jeanne is “The Marketing Writer”, an expert writer specializing in marketing text, website writing, and content writing. Visit her website to learn more.