09/20/2012 11:05 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

The Customer's Not Always Right

... But they must always win. I'm not sure who first dispensed this sage advice but regardless, they were spot on. The customer isn't always right. They might want to return an item that was a final sale. They may insist they purchased additional insurance -- even when it's obvious they didn't. Their steak is cooked to the perfect temperature they ordered but doesn't meet with their satisfaction.

If you are very lucky, a customer that has a problem or issue at or with your business will ask to speak to a decision maker -- be it the owner, director, or manager -- directly. Advise your employees that this is an acceptable request so they don't take it upon themselves to be your 'gatekeeper.'

Several studies show that a typical business hears from only 4 percent of its customers that experienced an issue or concern. The other 96 percent quietly leave, never mentioning their dissatisfaction to someone who can make a difference in the situation and 91 percent of those will never return. According to the 2011 Harris Interactive/Right Now Customer Experience Impact Report, the way you handle customer complaints will determine your customer's satisfaction, how and if they return and refer business, and the overall feeling they take away from doing business with you.

After the fact, Harris Interactive found that 26 percent of those customers that do not give you the opportunity to right a situation in person share their view of the experience on a social media network. Fifty percent of them look for a response within a week and if it's not forthcoming, they may take their business elsewhere. Of the dissatisfied customers that post a complaint and receive a response, 46 percent were pleased and 22 percent went on to post a positive comment about the business.

These statistics make clear that while the customer may not always be right but they must always be taken care of. There are specific steps that should be taken to smoothly resolve an issue either in person or online:

• Listen -- don't interrupt, come up with excuses, etc. -- just listen.

• Thank them for bringing the issue to your attention. Really, this is an opportunity in disguise and you have an occasion to make a difference.

• Apologize and be empathetic -- put yourself in their shoes. Again, no excuses, just a sincere apology.

• Ask what you can do for them to resolve the problem. Often times you'll be surprised how little (compared to what you may have been prepared to offer) it will take to make things right.

• Offer a solution based upon their needs and wants and agree to the resolution.

• Act fast to resolve the issue. The longer things linger the less confidence the customer has in your relationship.

• Follow up to make sure everything has been taken care of to their satisfaction.

• Thank them once again for bringing the matter to your attention and allowing you the chance to remedy the situation. Invite them to return to your business.

Let's face it, not every interaction or transaction will go off without a hitch. However, the way you handle these opportunities in disguise will be a driving factor in customer loyalty and return/referral business. Choose to be an advocate for your customer and, right or wrong, give them the opportunity to win. More often than not, you'll walk away with the prize.