Your friends had told you about the restaurant. “Try the pan-seared, macadamia-encrusted tuna,” they said. “It’s to die for.” Well, it looks like you may die before ever tasting that tuna. You and your date have just ordered two more glasses of white wine and the nut-speckled fish is nowhere to be seen. After the two of you have finished your conversation about your favorite Bill Murray movies and drifted into mildly uncomfortable silence, your waiter comes over with your entrees, including the much heralded tuna. He apologizes profusely and says that the two glasses of wine you ordered are on him.

I don’t know about you, but for me, the comping of the wine is instant goodwill. It shows that the waiter (1) realizes that the service wasn’t up to par; (2) is sorry about it; and (3) wants to do something to make it up to you.

It is remarkable how few businesses get the lessons that every good restaurant knows. My company recently dealt with a vendor – let’s use the pseudonym ABC Co. – that offered us a service that had a lot of value to us. But, we detected errors that they made in providing their service, which led us to doubt the quality of their service. We sent an email to ABC listing the troubles we’ve had (along with documentation demonstrating the mistakes) and asked for them to remedy the problem.

When we got on the phone to follow up with these issues, we didn’t get customer service so much as a multi-pronged defense of ABC’s service and no solutions offered. With the bad aftertaste of this interaction fresh in my mouth, let me suggest five easy rules for good customer service:

  1. Don’t argue with the client: It may very well be that the client is wrong, but that doesn’t mean you have to get into a verbal altercation with him. The point of customer service isn’t getting to whose fault it is, it’s to help the customer solve a problem. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t lay the blame for whatever happened at the feet of the client.
  2. Don’t get defensive: No one wants to speak with someone who is defensive and antagonistic. Instead demonstrate empathy, set a tone of collaboration, and work together to solve the problem.
  3. If you (or your organization) have made a mistake, apologize: No client should go into a business relationship expecting that no mistakes will be made. But that doesn’t mean that the client should be forced to simply accept your organization’s mistakes as a cost of doing business. Own up to your mistakes and show the client that you have high standards and demand quality service from those with whom you work.
  4. Listen to the client: There is a reason that your client is upset. Maybe it’s something that you did. Maybe it’s that the client’s expectations weren’t met. Maybe the client is just having a bad day and you are the unlucky person at whom he is venting his frustrations. But you’re only going to figure out what the matter is if you listen to what the client is telling you.
  5. Focus on the solution: Whatever problem the client has brought to your attention, focus on the solution. The mistakes that were made probably can’t be undone. What you can do is to repair and improve the relationship going forward and satisfy the needs the client has now.

In the end, a client who has called to discuss an issue is a good thing. It means they are giving you the opportunity to solve the problem instead of ending their relationship with your organization outright.

A little understanding and common sense can go a long way to keeping a client. Like the waiter that comps you drinks when dinner is late, it’s not about how much you get for free. It’s about showing that you care.