small business marketingWord-of-mouth and customer referrals are an integral part of most small business marketing strategies, and it’s possible that just a few bad reviews can make or break a business.

As an entrepreneur and a yoga practitioner, I’ve discovered that yoga has much to teach us about serving customers well and addressing customer complaints satisfactorily. Like yoga, exceptional customer service is a conscious practice, which means being clear about your intentions and choosing purposeful actions.

Yoga develops flexibility and stability, and it calls for mindfulness, self-study, honesty in relationships, and an awareness of doing no harm. But you needn’t run out and join the nearest yoga class to practice these precepts in your relationships with customers—particularly when they have complaints.

When dealing with unhappy customers:

1. Develop flexibility and stability. If you intend to make customer service the center of your business strategy, then people who have the most contact with customers—your client-facing employees—need to know that, and they need to be trained and empowered.

To be effective, these employees need the authority to grant exceptions when necessary so that customers get the service they expect and that will keep them coming back.

2. Be mindful. Meditation helps train people to be fully present and mindful of their actions. At work, encouraging thoughtful conversations about the importance of customers and what it means to provide great customer service can develop this kind of focus. Weaving these kinds of conversations into the daily work routine brings a new level of consciousness to daily actions when handling customer complaints.

3. Self-study for improvement. A great way to improve customer service is to foster a culture of personal responsibility. Encourage self-study and lead discussions on what it means to serve customers and be accountable to the whole business. What do you need to learn about, improve on, let go of, or change in order to improve your ability to better handle customer complaints? If your employee feels loyalty to and responsibility for your business, that same employee will look out for your best interests and keep your customers happy.

4. Be honest. Customers can tell when you are being forthright. Teach your employees to be frank and discuss issues openly, without exaggeration or understatement and with kindness. Be willing to hear your customers’ truth, and take what customers say about their experiences at face value.

It’s important to realize that many things can be true at the same time. What you see and what your customer sees may be different, but both views are important. Don’t discount your customer’s complaint just because you do not view the situation in the same way.

5. Do no harm. It’s easy to see complaining customers as malcontents who are trying to take advantage of you or your business. However, as the research shows, most complaining customers only want a sense of justice—both in the way they are treated and in what is done to remedy their complaint.

Don’t punish the customer for complaining—the cost of retaining a customer is less than reaching a new one. According to a 2010 poll by RightNow and Harris Interactive 82 percent of respondents stopped doing business with an organization due to a poor customer service experience. In their complaints, 73 percent of respondents cited rude staff, and 55 percent said their issues weren’t resolved quickly enough. Further, 85 percent of these folks said they told others about the pitfalls of doing business with that company.

But there was good news for businesses as well. In the poll, 92 percent said they would consider going back if they received a follow-up apology or correction from a supervisor, were offered a discount, or were shown proof an enhanced customer service experience.

In the modern marketplace, customers are in charge of your destiny, and your survival and prosperity are in their hands. Delivering a unique and understanding response to your customers is the bread and butter of your enterprise. Even if you are offering a product or service with little or no competition, satisfying customer complaints is critical to success.

Jamie Showkeir is co-founder and owner of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., an organizational development consulting business with an extensive and varied client list. He is co-author (with Maren Showkeir) of two books, Authentic Conversations: Moving from manipulation to truth and commitment (Berrett-Kohler, 2008) and Yoga Wisdom at Work: Finding Sanity Off the Mat and On the Job (2013).