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Client Emergencies: Resolved or Rejected? 

by Marcia Yudkin

The Question Put to Marketing Minute Subscribers 

Do your clients have emergencies? Jack Mitchell, author of the marvelous book Hug Your Customers, describes scores of urgent problems solved by staff of his clothing stores: a groom spilling coffee on his pants on the way to his wedding, switched luggage leaving someone without a suit to wear to a funeral and a woman desperate to buy men's underwear on a Sunday. (She'd packed her house for a move and her husband was furious that she'd forgotten to put aside clean briefs.)

I read about Mitchell's heroics while suffering through four days with muddy water at our house. The well company came on a Friday, seemed to have fixed the problem, then 20 minutes after the crew left, the water turned to mud again. They didn't return my call till Monday morning.

"If this happens again, can you give me a cell phone or beeper number where I can reach you?" I asked the company owner.

His response, counseling patience, conveyed that to him, living without water was no big deal. And until competitors move in on his territory, perhaps he can remain top dog. Please tell: Do you do your best to accommodate clients' crises or, in the interest of your own sanity, hold the view that "Your crisis is not mine"? Are you fanatically loyal to a vendor who fixes problems on your timetable? 

A Parenthetical Note 

A local friend of mine, also a customer of the well company, was so certain that they'd take care of the problem over the weekend - "They can't leave you without water!" - that she bet on it. She lost, and now owes me a dinner at a nice restaurant I've been wanting to check out. 

On One Side 

No one defended the well company, so let me take my best guess why they behaved this way. "We can't be a slave to the business," they might be thinking. "It's OK to make customers wait till the next business day because it's never a life-and-death emergency." 

Since I've heard the saying, "Your emergency is not ours," I went looking on the web for companies that committed that philosophy to writing. And I found a few. One business using the maxim was a film processing company; another was a pottery kiln. A couple of instances concerned tech support or computer repair, such as this message:



This Policy is Strictly Enforced and is Posted with The Better Business Bureau

One document I found got sardonic:

Please coordinate your earthquakes, fires and floods with our office. Your emergency is not our priority.

On the Other Side 

Now here are some of the anecdotes sent in by Marketing Minute readers representing the opposite point of view.


In a town where we're up against Staples, WalMart, and another remanufacturer, our customer service is the ONLY thing that sets us apart. And customer service definitely includes handling a customer's crises as if it is your own. I've fired four people because they didn't have the quality of customer service that our retail store demands. Without it, we will not make it.



I was in San Francisco two weeks ago, traveling with one of my clients. We were scheduled to tour the Asian Art Museum when she got a call from her family indicating that her father had suffered a major heart attack and she needed to immediately fly home. As my client began to pack, she realized that she didn't have any room for all the items she had purchased during our trip and that she needed a new suitcase. We realized this at 9:00 in the morning and there were hardly any stores open in the Castro, which is where we were staying.

The one store with an open door was called Nancy Boy, which makes hair and skin care products. We explained our situation to a gentleman who was loading boxes from a van into the store and asked him where we could find a place that sold large travel bags at that hour. Eric Roos, the store's owner, told my client that he had a bunch of bags in his backroom that were used to hand out his products on the street and that she could have them for nothing--he said "I know what it's like to get that emergency call from a family member, so take my bags so you can get to the airport and go home." 

My client got her bags and got packed and Nancy Boy got two clients for life! Eric was there to simply help us out and didn't ask for a thing from us. In fact, I sent an order of products home to my house and when it arrived, Eric had put $30 worth of free merchandise in my box as a "thank you" for trying his products! 

Jim Jenkins
Creative Visions Consulting

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I'm an independent wedding/event planner. One of the huge benefits of owning my own business is being able to make myself available to my clients (often nervous brides and grooms) on a 24/hr basis. My office is in my home, and they can reach me on the cell or office phone anytime, day or night. When I'm out of town, the cell and my list of vendors and clients is with me. My clients LOVE this - even though they rarely take advantage of it. Just knowing that I'm there for them no matter what or when gives that extra touch of personal service, and it's something that NONE of my local competitors offer.

Misty Lee Drury
Wedding/Event Planning and Consultation

Catch Up on the Inspirational, Educational Marketing Minute
Published every Wednesday since 1998, the Marketing Minute offers success stories, principles and provocative insights into finding and keeping customers.  Get five paperback volumes of collected columns to review whenever you need marketing perspective or ideas. Learn about the Marketing Minute anthologies.

Three years ago, I relocated across country with my family and small home-based business. Although I packed our things and drove the truck containing our personal possessions, my business computer needed "professional help" to make certain it reached our destination quickly and in good working order.

I packaged the computer in its original shipping container and brought it to my local UPS drop-off location. I purchased $1,500 of damage insurance, and the clerk assured me that it would arrive the next day at my new residence.

When the computer finally arrived four days after the promised date (after countless phone calls to track the shipment), it looked as though it had been kicked or dragged across country. I instructed my people who received the delivery to make certain that the computer worked - it didn't. 

The repairs on the computer cost $300.00. But do you think that the insurance I purchased would cover that cost? No.

Do you think that I (at least) was refunded the cost of shipping for missing the promised delivery date? No.

I made calls and sent letters for more than a year, and UPS would not honor their commitment to me for a safe, insured, on-time delivery. 

A few months ago, I happened to be staying at a hotel in Maryland that was welcoming a UPS manager's meeting just as I was getting ready to leave. I was alone in an elevator with a man wearing a UPS polo shirt, so I thought I would try just one more time to get someone at UPS to care about this one, little customer. But after just a few seconds, we arrived at his floor. He stepped out of the elevator, put up his hand and said, "That sounds like a can of worms I don't want to open."

I have recounted that story many times, including to the shipping department at my Fortune 50 company and to over a thousand people who have attended my training sessions over the past three years. I always use this story as an example of how to lose a formerly-loyal customer.

Christopher "Kip" Hartman
Business Region Sales Trainer for the Northeast

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I position, promote, and mentor specialists who sell advice. Their welfare has always been my concern. Over the years when one of them performs uncharacteristically poorly on TV or in front of an audience, I often learn that a personal crisis has unnerved them. Until the crisis is handled their careers will be compromised. The sooner a crisis is addressed, the sooner my client can get back to business.

These crises are major issues: stalkers - it can happen when someone has a high profile; 6 sweetheart swindlers - not uncommon with high profile, successful, single women; a bullying co-worker; and a gambling-addicted spouse.

And yes, sometimes it's unprofessional treatment by service businesses, as you received. Like the plumber who fixed the woman's gas leak but refused to check the other gas appliances for more gas and carbon monoxide leaks. It would have taken 5 minutes and possibly caught a third leak. It's sad that the plumber doesn't care if his customer lives or dies.

Because I have training as a crisis counselor as well as a background in investigative journalism, I get involved in helping clients find multiple solutions that are do-able. Everything from contacting police or writing letters that get results to just listening. 

It's turned into a small business that has taken on a life of its own. I now place a tiny notice on my main web site pages that says, "Even experts experience crises in their lives. Get 10 solutions in complete confidence and privacy."

Andrea Reynolds

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Because purchasers of my latest book, Diagonally-Parked in a Parallel Universe: Working Through Social Anxiety, tend to be people who are suffering and desperate for help, I sometimes encounter crisis situations. One time when I received an order from Marketplace for one copy of the book to be sent Priority Mail, I mistakenly sent it Media Mail (that's New Mexico to Florida 4-14 days on average).

I let the customer know immediately by e-mail about the error and sent her a check for the postage difference. She immediately shot back an angry reply. I offered to give her a free $15 e-mail consultation if she wanted to talk. She did. She expressed extreme frustration; she said she felt my book was her last hope for her son who was suffering from severe social anxiety disorder.

I suggested that while she was waiting for the book to arrive, I would check to see if there were any other psychotherapists near her - those she hadn't already tried - who might be able to assist her. I contacted the Florida Psychological Association, retrieved some names, and passed them along. Days passed before she let me know that none of the therapists in the area was really knowledgeable of and experienced with treating social anxiety. Furthermore, her son was reluctant to see anyone new if he could not be assured the person would fully understand his condition.

On the twenty-day mark I sent another copy of the book - this time Priority. I suggested she talk with a social anxiety expert in Arizona who offers sufferers from around the world an intensive treatment program. She did but he was booked for the next nine months. As a final option, I told her about the expert's recently-produced 20-tape treatment series. She was thinking about it when the two books arrived on the same day.

She returned one copy and purchased the tapes. I'll likely drop her an e-mail soon to see how things are going. I think she can considered herself "hugged."

Signe A. Dayhoff, Ph.D.
Social Effectiveness - Social Anxiety Coach

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When I travel with my groups of women over 40 I carry spare camera batteries and a throw away camera. When someone's camera doesn't work (as inevitably one doesn't) we check to see if the batteries fit and if not they can use the disposable camera. It's nice to turn a bad situation around. In the work that I do my clients' crises are mine. Lost passports or luggage, a clogged toilet in a hotel room, a migraine headache, you name it, if it happens while they're on a trip, it's up to me or one of our leaders to help handle it. I've found that even if I can't solve a problem, folks appreciate the effort.

Debbie Jacobs
Explorations in Travel 


I live in Florida. We had trouble with our AC during a steamy part of the summer. When I called our AC repair and service company. They said they could come out as soon as possible -- when would that be? 
You are # 10 on the list and the crews are working through the problems as fast as they can. Then she asked, do you have any elderly people living with you?

My mother who is 78 lives with us.

Any children?

Yes, 1 under 4.

That moves you to the top of the list -- the elderly and babies can't handle the heat. They really suffer and could actually die, so we put them at the top of the list.

Just thought you might find this interesting.

Francine DiFilippo-Kent, Ph.D.
DiFilippo Business Services


I am a crisis management consultant. I attempt to work with companies and organizations who recognize something bad could happen to them some day and are willing to take the time and spend a little money up front to proactively prepare for that time by taking my workshop. But if they wait too long (the old "head in the sand" syndrome) and the crisis hits before they've prepared for it, then they pay much more in the long run. They hire me as a consultant to help them dig out from the hole they have probably made for themselves by stumbling and bumbling their way through the first few hours or days of the crisis.

I am positive you are right that people who respond well to a client in crisis will make an unforgettable positive impression that will go a long way in terms of customer loyalty and positive word of mouth referrals.

Judy Hoffman, Principal, JCH Enterprises
Community and Media Relations Consulting


Final Thoughts 

I can actually think of one case where I felt that refusing to take the client's "emergency" seriously was in the client's best interest. This client had a standing telephone coaching appointment one day a week, and occasionally she would call me in a panic over something that she absolutely had to talk over that day. 

"Now is this truly an emergency?" I would ask. 

She'd reflect and reply, "No, I guess not." 

The effect of my not acting as if I were at her beck and call was that she calmed down, became more self-reliant and figured out solutions on her own. 

I don't think this exception applies to the case of the well company, however!

Copyright 2003 Marcia Yudkin. All rights reserved.

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