How to Do Damage Control When Murphy’s Law Kicks Your Business Square in the Teeth

Written by Laura Roeder

On October 13, 2015

Murphy’s Law is the idea that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

It’s named after the Murphy siblings, whose trip to Jurassic Park went very, VERY wrong.

Murphy Siblings

(Totally true. Don’t look that up.)

Even if you never visit a dinosaur-themed nature preserve, though, Murphy’s Law can really ruin your day – because no matter how careful you are, things are gonna go wrong for your business.

Payments get processed incorrectly. Deliveries get lost. Social networks crash.

The worst part? It’s not always your fault – but you have to deal with it anyway.  Because if it affects you, it’s gonna affect your customers.

And they’re probably not gonna like that.

The question is, what do you do when something goes wrong and you’re left holding the bag? How do you handle it when people are looking to you for answers, and you just don’t have ‘em?

(No, the answer is not “curl up under your desk and breathe into a paper sack.”)

When things start going wrong, take a deep breath, and keep the following in mind:

It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t your fault

When something goes wrong, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is – an unhappy customer is an unhappy customer, whether it’s because the shipment you sent them got lost in the mail or your web hosting crashed right at the worst possible time.

But in a way, that’s kind of a good thing.

Because when something goes wrong and it wasn’t your fault, there are two ways you can approach that situation:

First, you can point the finger at the true culprit. In business school, they call this “The Shaggy Principle.”


At least, that’s what they should call it.

You can say, “Hey, man, I did my part just fine – point that dissatisfaction at the other guy, because I’ve got nothing to do with this!”

It might be objectively true! And it might feel awesome to just wash your hands of the whole mess, because someone else dropped the ball.

Problem is, that’s putting your own feelings above your customer’s. Which is why you should approach the situation in the other way:

You can be as helpful as you are honest.

Does that mean you’re cleaning up after someone else’s mess? Yeah, a little bit – but what’s most important is that the mess gets cleaned up at all. You don’t have to actually take accountability for what went wrong if it isn’t your fault, but you can still keep the situation from turning into a net loss.

No matter the problem or who may be at fault, when your customer service goes beyond the usual call of duty, people notice:

That might mean rushing a replacement order on something that got lost or damaged in the mail. It might mean providing a courtesy freebie, or a partial refund. And sometimes, it’s as simple as remembering this next thing:

Being proactive rules

Sometimes, a bad situation is 100% out of your hands.

Maybe you’re supposed to have a video conference with a client, but the video conferencing program is down for maintenance. Maybe you can’t open your bakery today, because the guy who delivers your flour was abducted by aliens.

Stuff like that happens.

And when it does, it’s very tempting to hide – to ignore the customer questions you can’t answer, and the problems you can’t actually fix, and instead just bury your head in the sand like an ostrich.

Oh, great. Now we've offended the ostrich community.

Oh, great. Now we’ve offended the ostrich community.

The worst thing you can possibly say is nothing.

As much as you want to just unplug and remove yourself from a situation that you have literally zero control over, doing so would be another case of putting your own feelings before your customer’s. They need someone to take ownership of the problem, and even if you can’t fix the problem, you can still meet that need.

So what do you say? What do you do?

It’s okay to admit when something is out of your hands – but you can still empathize with what someone else is going through, and update them to the best of your ability.

Is it frustrating watching your customers feel disappointed because of something you can’t control? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share what you know, even if what you know doesn’t solve the core problem. You being incommunicado would just be another problem on top of that one.

And when you do keep those lines of communication open, there’s one thing worth keeping in mind above all others:

Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt

When people aren’t happy with you and your business, it can feel a little…well, less than awesome.

(It’s okay to admit that. We all have feelings.)

But no matter how someone expresses their unhappiness, it deserves to be taken seriously – no matter how uncomfortable that can be.

What's the opposite of something being sugar-coated?

What’s the opposite of something being sugar-coated?

People might express themselves in ways that make you feel uncomfortable, but it’s not up to you to decide whether that disqualifies the point they’re making. The issue isn’t how they’re saying something – it’s what they’re saying.

Don’t take it personally when someone expresses their frustration – even if they’re expressing it in a very personal way. There are virtually unlimited reasons they could be doing so, including plenty that have nothing to do with you at all!

Maybe they’re upset because your credit card company accidentally charged them twice. But maybe they’re upset because they were late for work, they spilled coffee on their favorite shirt, their dog is in the hospital, and then your credit card company accidentally charged them twice. (You’d be in rough shape too, don’t you think?)

So don’t take it personally when the going gets rough. Easy as it is to feel a little affronted at times like those, look past the way something is being said and focus on what the message actually means. Being defensive doesn’t solve problems, but being proactive does.

Recommended reading

These may be a few highlights, but there’s a lot to learn about providing stellar customer service. You could write entire books on the subject – and in fact, a lot of people have.

Here are some of our favorites:

Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service

Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion, And Purpose

If It Wasn’t For The Customers I’d Really Like This Job

Check these out, and if you have faves of your own, let us know in the comments!

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