Misunderstandings, mistakes and breakdowns can happen at any company — including a giant like Amazon, which had the embarrassment of its website not working properly at the start of its much-advertised Prime Day. Small business owners know they might not be able to survive negative reviews on social media, so when they have customer service disasters, they need to try to not just mollify customers but please or even thrill them.

When they mess up, companies should focus on building relationships rather than apologizing profusely, says Paul Fombelle, a marketing professor at the D'Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University. At the same time, owners shouldn't ask, “What can we do to make you happy?” the equivalent of a blank check.

Fombelle's suggestion is to say, "We screwed up. We want to keep you as a customer. Here are two options for what we can do now." In trying to mitigate the damage, owners also shouldn't make promises they won't be able to keep.

“You'll be failing two times in a row,” Fombelle says.

When an angry customer calls or shows up, owners or employees should listen, not be defensive or condescending and not say, “I can't help you,” says Nancy Friedman, who runs The Telephone Doctor, a customer service consulting firm. Staffers who don't know how to respond should say, “I'll get someone to help you.” And no one should ever make the customer feel like they're being a pain.

“You need to make someone feel that they matter,” Friedman says.

Some important things to remember:

  • Sometimes, even good service can't get the resolution a customer wants.
  • When trying to right a wrong, late can still be better than never.
  • Sometimes, a crisis resolved can have a bonus in the end.