Customer service is one of the most important things in today’s marketplace. In this article, I’ll show you how one big company got their customer service wrong, and how you can learn from their mistakes and take your small business customer service to the next level.

Last Christmas, when Leo and I took the kids to Spain for the holidays, we experienced several hours of delay in London Heathrow Airport. After our delay, our flight was boarded then de-boarded, and then we spent several more hours in the chaos of baggage claim, trying to get our suitcases back. British Airways made no public announcements, made no real effort to provide accurate information (except to first class passengers, and even that effort was minimal, at best), and no one seemed to be in charge. Not only that, but my bag was lost for an entire week, and we received Leo’s bag a week after that, the day before we left to come home, and the entire time the bags were lost, no one at British Airways seemed to have a clue what was going on.

And believe it or not, that wasn’t even the worst part of the customer service catastrophe. After the holidays, on the train back to London, I filed the claims for our canceled flights and reimbursement for what we purchased while we awaited deliver of our lost baggage. I heard back from BA by February, but in March, they stopped responding to my e-mails. It took until May to get a response, and only because I e-mailed the CEO of British Airways, and then it took another two and a half months to get them to issue a reimbursement check. The final insult? The check they sent covered less than half of the claim I submitted.

Where did British Airways go wrong here? Everywhere. So…what could they do better, and more importantly, what can you learn about about small business from my bad experience with British Airways?

The customer or client should be at the forefront of everything you do.
I’ve said it hundreds of times – your priority should be to meet the needs of your target market. You have to know who they are and what they want so you can design everything for them. When you develop your brand, ask yourself: will this appeal to my target market? When you have a web site created for you, ask yourself: will my target market be able to navigate this? When you set up customer service guideline and procedures, ask yourself: does this serve my clients and customers?

I’d wager that when BA execs sit down to plan something new, they don’t consider the customer at all. It’s evident in their hard-to-navigate web site, their lack of easily-accessible customer service phone lines, and their lack of consideration for the customer in virtually every aspect of travel. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake.

Have emergency backup plans in place.
No matter what business you’re in, there will always be moments when something goes wrong. If you have a contingency plan in place before things go wrong, you won’t have to scramble to figure out what to do. Your response time will be faster and your customers will be satisfied sooner…and you won’t feel frazzled, because you’ll know exactly what’s going on and what to do about it.

If British Airways had an emergency backup plan in place for what happened when we traveled back in December, there would’ve been BA personnel telling people what was going on and what to do next, and no one would’ve spent the night sitting in baggage claim.

Keep your customers informed.
The worst thing you can do when things go wrong is to cut your customers out of the loop. Maintain regular communication with your clients and customers, even if you can’t tell them what they want to hear. They want to know that you’re working on solving their problem.

A great example of this is how American Airlines handled a problem I recently had with a ticket. They’d made a mistake and ticketed something wrong and I was on the phone with their customer service agent, trying to solve the problem. The agent had to put me on hold for a very long time so his supervisor could work with another department to fix the issue. Every couple of minutes, though, he’d come back and say, “I’m sorry this is taking so long, Mrs. Baroncini-Moe, but I just wanted to check in and let you know that we’re still working on this and I just need to have you hold a bit longer. Is that okay?” And because I knew what was going on, I was fine with the lengthy hold.

British Airways could’ve gone a long way with customer service by having someone in the baggage claim area telling people they weren’t sure what was going on, but they were in the process of finding out and were going to let us know just as soon as they had answers, having someone call my hotel to let me know they were still trying to get our bags to us and updating me on their progress (even if there hadn’t been any), and, instead of going for three months without replying to my e-mails, having someone contact me to let me know they were researching my receipts and working on figuring out the reimbursement, which brings me to my next point.

Respond quickly and communicate regularly.
When customers contact you and let you know there’s a problem, respond immediately. Let them know you’re willing to take action to resolve the issue, and you are on their side. Your goal is to preserve the relationship, and one of the ways to do that is to keep the lines of communication open. Make sure they know you’re continuing to work on resolving things and keep them updated on your progress.

Obviously, if British Airways had communicating effectively and regularly from the start, we wouldn’t have spent the night waiting for our suitcases, and obviously I wouldn’t have spent three months trying to get them to respond to e-mails. Beyond that, if just once, a member of the BA staff had picked up the phone and called me, instead of relying on the impersonal medium of e-mail, I think I would’ve felt like they cared a little.

Go an extra step beyond to satisfy your customers, and apologize.
Be exceptional. Go overboard. Do what it takes and go beyond just what you “have” to do to resolve any problems. British Airways sent me reimbursement for half of what their mistakes cost me. I would’ve been happy if they’d sent me exactly what I spent on replacement clothes, toiletries, and, as this was our Christmas trip, replacements for the kids’ Christmas stockings and stuffers, but do you know what I never received, even to this date? An apology. If, at any point during this process, anyone from BA had called me to say, “We are so sorry for how this has been handled, and we’re going to make this right,” I wouldn’t have felt so frustrated and angry as I practically forced them to resolve the problem.

My point in this post is to show you exactly where this big company went wrong in their customer service, and how you, as a small business, can do better. Good customer service matters – people talk about that. So make your customer service about caring for your clients and customers in an unparalleled way. Go the extra mile, and dare to be exceptional. Put yourself in the shoes of your customers and clients and ask yourself, “What can I do to put this relationship first and delight this person?” Do that and you’ll find your customers becoming more and more loyal, until you have your very own volunteer marketing team.