A young woman in a clothing store hands a yellow paper bag across a glass-topped counter to another, older woman. The wall behind the first woman is lined with shelves of boxed merchandise and racks of clothing.
When working to regain the trust of your customers, it's sometimes best to take cues from the customers themselves. — Getty Images/Thomas Barwick

Surviving a PR crisis is one thing. Regaining customer trust after you’ve confronted the issue is an entirely different challenge. Brands that are able to right the ship through rocky seas are then confronted with sailing on — and finding ways to confront consumer skepticism, improve their tarnished image, and rebuild customer relationships.

If you find yourself in this position, don’t despair. Plenty of brands, including Pinterest, Johnson & Johnson, and Pepsi, have come back from public mistakes to build stronger customer relationships than before. Here are some steps to take to begin regaining trust and reengaging customers.

Start with a sincere apology

Acknowledge what went wrong and take responsibility for the incident. According to Zendesk, customer satisfaction increases by up to 15% when an apology is perceived as genuine. Even if the mistake wasn’t necessarily your fault, there are ways to be apologetic about the situation while avoiding defensiveness. Put yourself in the customer’s position: Would you rather hear a brand deny responsibility, or sincerely apologize and share how it’s moving forward?

[Read more: Raising Pricing? Fired an Employee? Here's How to Communicate to Customers]

Understand what it takes to gain trust

Researchers at the Harvard Business School found that brands that are considered trustworthy build that reputation by focusing on four key elements.

  1. Competence: Delivering a product or service on time, with technical authority, and in a way that makes customers feel confident in their purchase.
  2. Motive: Communicating your company’s mission and interests beyond your balance sheet. What are the values that drive your company beyond financial results?
  3. Means: Developing business methods that are equitable for employees. Are you treating your team well and communicating transparently with the public?
  4. Impact: Creating positive impact through the company’s practices and actions.

[Read more: 5 Ways to Build Trust With Your Customers]

Companies that communicate transparently, treat their employees well, minimize the potential for negative business practices (such as environmentally unsafe supply chain partners), and deliver on their promise with competence can build customer trust.

The challenge is that it takes a sustained history of right to wipe out one wrong. A company will have to be on the right side of trust again and again.

Professor Sandra J. Sucher, Harvard Business School

Let your customers guide you

Regaining trust takes time. It’s best to follow your customers’ lead and respond consistently to their needs.

“When things have gone wrong, focus on your audience and how they were affected, not on your brand’s interests or your shareholder value,” wrote the Content Marketing Institute. “As you craft your response, consider how your customers might perceive it — or ask a few of them outright — to gauge whether it’s really what they will want or need to hear from your brand at that particular moment.”

Work on providing excellent customer service in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Get on top of your social media channels — a common outlet for users to express their dissatisfaction — and respond to reviews, comments, and questions as soon as possible. Show compassion and transparency in how you resolve the issue, and take note of any (feasible) suggestions your customers have to remediate the situation.

Stick to your promises

Only time will tell if you’re able to regain customer trust — and sometimes, it takes a lot of time to see any measurable change.

“The challenge is that it takes a sustained history of right to wipe out one wrong. A company will have to be on the right side of trust again and again,” said Harvard Business School Professor Sandra Sucher.

Continue using your online presence to demonstrate concrete evidence of competence, employee engagement, your mission and values, and how you’re creating a positive impact through your business. And share what you’re doing to make sure whatever caused the break in trust to never happen again.

Take advantage of user-generated content

As customers start coming back to your business, mine their social media posts for content you can share on your own page. Or speak to loyal customers who have stood by your business to get testimonials and positive reviews you can use. Authentic, real experiences from customers who love your company serve as powerful trust builders for others to shop at your business.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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