(Image: WCAX)

(Image: WCAX)

In Fayetteville, North Carolina, a car wash customer went home very angry. She was so angry, she couldn’t keep it to herself, and she decided to tell everyone what happened. So she wrote a note to the Fayetteville Observer.

“Jeers to TLC Autowash and Fast Lube on Skibo Road,” she wrote. On Feb. 19, I purchased a car wash for my car. While I was sitting in the waiting room, two people yelled out that a window was down in the car wash. I looked in the window and saw that it was my car.” She continued:

I was very angry. I spoke to the manager, and he did nothing. He put a trash bag on the seat and told me to air dry in 20 degree weather. He refused to give me my money back or help me. All he said is, “It happens.” My driver’s side was covered in water and soap. I am now worried about the possibility of mold. I also had to buy a steering-wheel cover due to sticky residue.

This kind of thing happens all the time, both windows being accidentally left down and customers writing angry letters or reviews on Yelp or Google. Nothing any of us does is going to prevent dissatisfaction entirely. But there are things we can do to mitigate the problem. Most of it has to do with personality and mood — yours, as an owner or manager, and your customers’. But there are things you can control and methods for mitigating the likelihood that a disgruntled customer will become a disgruntled customer who writes to the newspaper.

1. When something bad happens, don’t ignore it. In the case of this window oops, it seems like the customer went to the owner to complain about the wet seat, leaving the owner in the position of having to respond. If that’s the case, it shouldn’t have been that way. The car wash was aware of the problem and should’ve been the first to offer the customer some kind of resolution.

2. Admit fault. Insurance companies would tell you never to say this, and depending on the situation, that’s probably wise, simply for legal reasons. But when the mistake is an open window or something unlikely to draw in lawyers or insurance reps, then there is no harm in saying, “This is our mistake, and we’re so sorry.” Accepting blame and apologizing is the best way to defuse somebody who’s angry. It’s human nature to forgive.

3. Put the situation back to normal. When the woman’s front seat got wet and her interior covered with soap, it’s the car wash’s responsibility to dry the seat and remove the soap, if possible. If it’s not possible, do something like what the TLC Autowash folks did, which was to offer her a seat cover (she calls it a trash bag). In any case, try to put things back the way they were. But don’t stop there…

4. Overcompensate. Here’s where many business owners get their feathers ruffled, but what I’m about to say is completely effective. Depending on how you handle the bad situation, you can actually turn an angry customer into a life-long loyal one and a brand ambassador. The key is not to write this person off as a customer. Offer a free car wash, and then offer unlimited free car washes for the next three months. By month four, chances are you’ll have won their favor back and created a habit of getting their vehicle washed at your location. By the end of the year you’ll have more than won back their trust and your losses over the first three months. And, more than likely, they’ll have mentioned to a friend or two where they go to keep their car so clean.

5. If none of this works, stay penitent and friendly but firm in your story. It’s important that if someone does go to the papers or turn to the Yelp reviews that you enter a detailed response explaining what happened, why, how you responded and what you promise to do if it ever happens again. After the woman wrote into the Fayetteville paper, the manager of the TLC Autowash replied with his side of the story. He was firm in his story but could have been more apologetic and cheery. Here’s the full response.

“By the time I looked at it, it was already cleaned up,” May said. “You couldn’t tell anything had happened. The only remnant was the seat was damp.”

May said he checked the car’s radio, heating and air conditioning to make sure they weren’t damaged. He said he offered to give the customer a seat cover. “I guess that’s what she called a trash bag,” he said.

May said the Skibo Road location washes about 5,000 cars a month. He estimated only two a month go through the wash with a window down.

“We want to roll it up 100 percent of the time, but we are human,” he said.

May said he told the customer she could bring the car back if she had an issue with it due to the car wash.

Part of the issue is that it seems he was interviewed by the newspaper, so he wasn’t able to craft his message exactly how he wanted. But he starts off by minimizing the problem, which is disrespectful to how upset the customer obviously is (even if the customer’s anger seems unjustified). “We are human,” is the closest thing to an apology. The statistic, however, about the number of washes vs. the number of windows down is very good. It shows the public that this is very rare.