How to Bounce Back from a Poor Customer Experience

How you respond to unhappy customers is key to the relationship you maintain with them, your chances to engage them in further business and, potentially, have them recommend and refer you. So many businesses get this very wrong.

Sometimes a company gets it very right.

A few weeks ago we applied for a bounceback loan to help our business ride the Covid-19 storm. Much of our revenue is generated from live events, whether they are conferences, away days or in-house training. In one fell swoop, that channel was cut off for us, some big contracts were cancelled or delayed indefinitely and we had to adjust quickly.

I’m pleased with the work we have done to adapt and survive in the circumstances, with a quick change of focus to mentoring clients, backed up by a number of remote presentations and workshops. But the financial impact to our business was still substantial and the bounceback loan announcement came as a breath of fresh air as we hadn’t qualified for any of the financial support previously announced by the UK Government.

So imagine our shock when our loan application was turned down by our bank, NatWest. A bank we had been with as a business for over a decade and I have personally for about 30 years. It wasn’t just the fact that the loan application was declined, it was the way it was done. A cold, abrupt letter delivered by email informing us that the loan was declined, ”because of information we received as part of our usual checks and assessments’. No further detail, no right of appeal, just a curt statement that our application was, as a result, cancelled.

The notification, and its manner, led to a lot of trauma within our family business. Stress that had been building up for weeks came bursting out and it was a very difficult time.

I’m not, however, one to take things lying down. I did my research and knew that there was no valid reason I was aware of why the loan should be cancelled. I sought support from NatWest’s website and found someone to speak to who was very empathetic but ultimately could do nothing.

So I did what comes naturally to me, I reached out to my network. I’ve worked with NatWest and RBS on a number of occasions, delivering programmes to various teams across the bank, and have a reasonable network of senior connections within the bank. None could help directly but one gave me a great piece of advice. ‘Write to Alison Rose’ (the bank’s CEO), she advised me. ‘She always responds.’

So I wrote to Alison Rose and also copied in my local Member of Parliament, who is Chairman of the Conservative Party’s influential 1922 committee and a well respected MP. I outlined what had happened, the impact it had, the failure in NatWest’s systems in terms of empathy and understanding of impact on their customers and asked for our application to be explored and resolved.

I received a reply from a member of the Executive Office, who followed up soon after with a telephone call. His response was what you want to receive from an organisation with whom you have a grievance. He was empathetic, communicative and clearly committed to finding a suitable resolution. He kept us updated at all stages of the process, including calling one weekend because he was concerned that we had been expecting a response on the Friday, and fought our corner when he hit obstacles within the bank.

The good news I can share is that the issue was resolved and we now have our loan. It turns out that an external credit agency had applied black marks to a series of accounts because of identity fraud. Something we knew nothing about and had nothing to do with our activity. Those marks have been removed from all of the accounts affected so, in fighting for our own rights, perhaps we have helped other businesses as well.

I had a call from our contact at the bank to check that we had received the loan and then he personally tracked our account to make sure that the money was deposited and called straight away when it was. Not only that, he also asked for an additional sum to be deposited as an apology for everything we had been through.

We thought that was pretty much it. I had two small asks of our contact as a gesture, which he did immediately without question. We have our loan, a financial gesture of apology and an answer to why it happened.

So imagine our surprise when, two days later, two large NatWest branded parcels turned up. In one was a huge bouquet of flowers (the ones pictured are just part of the bouquet!) and in the other a hamper of wine, chocolates, cheese, chutneys and more. All with a small card from our Executive Office contact which read ‘Please accept this gift with our apologies for the trouble and upset you have experienced’.

I do tend to stand up and fight when I believe I have been treated poorly. All too often companies respond defensively and my view of organisations like Emirates Airlines, Greater Anglia Rail and others has been tarnished by the awful experience I’ve had of their customer service.

This, on the other hand, is how to go about things. Don’t get defensive, find common ground and seek a resolution that makes everyone feel happy rather than leaving you feeling vindicated. If you value your customers, show them. Don’t assume they know. Listen, empathise, resolve their complaints or communicate in an understanding way why you can’t. And go the extra mile to make them feel you care.

Of course, the icing on the cake would be to know that NatWest have reviewed how they deliver bad news to customers and the options given to them to appeal.

My friend Geoff Ramm talks and writes about the concept of ‘Celebrity Service‘. Going beyond mere customer service and making your customers feel like celebrities. That’s what our contact at NatWest did and, as a result, it’s more likely that we’ll stay with them as clients for decades to come.

Who knows, if you treat someone well, they may even write a blog about it!



*Update – since this blog was posted, I’ve had a call from my contact at NatWest. He has reflected on my comments about the wording of the rejection letter and its impact and raised it with senior colleagues. They now plan to review the wording.