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When to act as if you have only one customer

(MoneyWatch) The chances of any one person getting hit by lightning are something like 0.01 percent, but as they say, if you happen to be the one who gets struck, those odds just went up to 100 percent. There's a business parallel to that bit of fun-with-numbers: One person may represent 0.01 percent of your customer base (or 5 percent or 20 percent), but when she's dealing with you she is 100 percent of that population.

Of course, good people working for good customer service organizations always laser-focus on the individual with whom they're dealing at any given time (at least we hope so). But in the broader thinking of a company, it's typical to consider customers in the aggregate -- whether through policies and mottos like "we give our customers our best every day," or internal company policies like "all customers who claim they got defective units should be offered a refund or exchange."

In the normal course of business planning, marketing and operations, it's usually fine to think of customers collectively. But there are situations when it's better to think and behave as if you have only one.

The one-customer mindset will serve you especially well when there's a large-scale problem. Sooner or later, every business has an issue that affects a large portion -- if not all -- of its customers. Could be a service interruption, a defect or recall, extended stock outage, website glitch or a promotion that backfires. When that happens, the natural reaction of some people and organizations is to run around in a panic, like the sky is falling. I've fallen into that trap and found that this disaster-scenario mentality almost always leads to unnecessary (often extreme and disproportionate) stress and distraction, which in turn leads to muddled thinking, bad decisions and bad actions.

Now, when we have an issue that affects a significant number of customers (fortunately those problems are rare) I remind my team, and myself, that if we dwell on the theoretical number of people who might be affected -- that is, thinking of our customers communally and the problem globally -- we'll just be freaking out until the issue is resolved. Imagining a room full of phones ringing, emails pinging and torch-carrying mobs at the gate isn't constructive. But if we remember that each customer only knows and cares about his or her own situation (the "100 percent" anecdote I began with), we're able to calm down and deal with manageable bites.

Instead of worrying that "everyone" is going to be upset, as if all of your customers are in a room together comparing notes, worry about that one customer being upset, because -- unless you're a high-visibility company in the middle of a class action or other PR nightmare -- that's usually the way your customers are thinking. Figuring out, whether philosophically or literally, how you'll handle that one customer will bring clarity and likely lead to the best, fastest and least stressful resolution for all involved.

To be clear, this may not change the inevitable scope or cost of a problem. But again, the individual customer neither knows nor cares about that. One-customer thinking averts panic, converts emotional energy to productive energy and creates the right mindset for coming up with the best solution. Figure out the best way to help your one customer, take care of the her, repeat. You'll find that most of these things don't wind up being as bad as you think they will, and the sky usually won't fall.