Monday, August 24, 2009

Six Steps to Recover From Service Errors

No matter how well you design your products or refine the customer service skills of your employees there still will be times when your customers are dissatisfied with your company.

Even “five star” properties and companies known to produce superior quality merchandise have product defects and service lapses. No one can satisfy all of their customers all of the time. But the truly successful companies know how to recover from their service mistakes. They know how to turn around dissatisfied customers so they leave happy and remain loyal to the business.

There are six things you can do to recover from service mistakes.

First, apologize for the error. The more serious the infraction, the more profuse the apology should be. Express sincere regret for the difficulty or inconvenience the error has caused the customer. Accept responsibility, even if you are not personally responsible for the mistake. The customer does not care who is responsible. They expect you to make amends and fix it.

Unfortunately, some service providers see an apology as a sign of weakness or an admission of guilt. They hesitate to apologize for something someone else has done. Yet a sincere, first-person apology is the fastest and simplest way to minimize a customer’s irritation and recover from service mistakes.

Customers with problems are miffed. Although they eventually want action to be taken to rectify their problem, customers first need to feel that you understand and accept the “hassle” you’ve caused them. Even though they probably realize you personally may not have caused their problem, they see you as a representative of the enterprise that did. An honest, “I’m sorry that this has happened,” shows that you accept personal responsibility for the mistake, thereby speeding up the recovery process.

After having apologized, you need to listen with empathy and ask open-ended questions to get to the heart of the customer’s concern. Let the customer talk. Be extremely attentive when the customer is explaining the problem. Do not be quick to judge or be in a hurry to move to resolution. Let the customer vent. Sympathize with their situation and acknowledge their concern. Sometimes venting is all the customer needs in order to feel satisfied.

These first two steps in the service recovery process are extremely important. Too often service providers jump too quickly to resolution. For many customers, the resolution of their problem is less important than a simple acknowledgment of their concern. Usually you need to fix the customer before you can fix the problem. Sometimes an immediate apology and a sincere listening ear are all that a customer needs to turn the situation into a positive service experience.

After you’ve identified the customer’s concern, you need to do something about it. Solve the problem quickly and fairly. Find a resolution that is acceptable to the customer. For most service errors a simple apology or replacement of a faulty product is all that is required. Most customers complain merely to bring the problem to your attention so you – the company – can be better. In these cases the customer doesn’t expect anything from you other than your assurance that the problem will not happen again.

However, in more severe service failures, or with extremely difficult customers, you may need to atone for your service transgression. In some situations you must make amends – or suffer as the customer has suffered – before the customer will be satisfied. Your atonement may be a product upgrade, a small gift, a future discount, a free offering, or, in worse case situations, a complete write-off of the product or service.

After telling the customer what you will do to rectify the problem, be sure to keep your promise. Don’t make promises you cannot fulfill. Once you’ve made a promise make sure you carry it out fully. Be sure not to over-promise. It’s always best to under promise and over deliver.

Finally, you need to follow-up. Don’t assume the customer is satisfied just because you fixed the problem. Check with them. Ask if there is anything else that you can do to meet their needs. Don’t consider the situation closed until you know the customer is fully satisfied. If the customer seems content with the solution but still dissatisfied with your company, apologize again. Ask if there is anything else you can do to satisfy them. Listen again with empathy and try to identify other dissatisfiers that you can resolve.

Not all dissatisfied customers can be turned around. But by following these simple steps chances are even your most dissatisfied customers will leave feeling they were treated fairly.

Let me give you an example of two converse situations that happened to me that illustrate how important these steps are to creating loyal customers.

In the first example I had leased a car that turned out to be a lemon. I took the car into the dealership several times for repairs. Each time I returned to the dealership I became more and more dissatisfied as the repairs were not done properly. And each time I received more hassles from the dealership when I brought my car back to be fixed right. I eventually ended up writing a complaint letter to the president of the Chevrolet division in Detroit.

Not once did I receive an apology from the dealership. Not once did I feel the dealership cared about my problem or me. Nor did I receive a follow-up call. But boy, did they atone for their sins. Because of the intervention from Detroit I ended up not having to pay any of the payments on my lease agreement. Yet, even though I basically had a free car for two years, and this happened more than twelve years ago, I’m still peeved at the hassle I had to go through. And, consequently, I have never bought a Chevrolet since then and highly recommend that no one else does either.

An opposite experience occurred several years ago while I was vacationing with my family at Disney World in Florida. We had booked our stay in the apartment-like suites at Disney World Village. As we were getting settled into our suite I noticed the refrigerator in the kitchen did not work. I called the front desk and told them about the refrigerator. The front desk attendant immediately apologized for the inconvenience and said he would have a repairman to my room within 15 minutes. I told him we had not been inconvenienced because we didn’t need to use the refrigerator. I also told him we were leaving to go inside the park, so there was no rush to fix the refrigerator. We would be gone for many hours.

That night when we came back to our room after the park closed we found a fruit basket on our kitchen table next to a handwritten, personally-signed note from the hotel general manager. He first apologized for the inconvenience the broken refrigerator had caused. He then stated what action had been taken to fix the problem. He referenced a small gift-wrapped box that was next to the fruit basket and said it was a small token as an apology for the inconvenience of the broken refrigerator. Inside the box was a porcelain Mickey Mouse statue.

While my wife and I were marveling at all of this, the phone rang. It was the night manager. She said she was calling on behalf of the hotel general manager to apologize for the inconvenience our broken refrigerator had caused. She wanted to know if there was anything else she could do to overcome any dissatisfaction we might have.

How amazing! First, we were never dissatisfied. We weren’t even upset. We really didn’t care whether the refrigerator worked or not. We weren’t planning on using it. I had only called the front desk to let them know so they could fix the refrigerator for the next guest who might use the room.

Second, how did they know we were back in our room at one o’clock in the morning? Sure, the park closed at midnight. But we could have come back early and been long in bed. They must have had someone watching our room. Or they just kept calling every few minutes until they finally reached us. That is what I call amazing follow-up.

It's been almost 15 years since this incident and I still have that porcelain Mickey Mouse sitting prominently on my desk to remind me of the remarkable service we received that day.

In reality, you don’t have to provide the whiz-bang service I received at Disney World. It usually doesn’t take much to turn around dissatisfied customers and maintain their loyalty. You just have to follow six simple steps.

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Innovative Management Group offers a one, two and four-hour Customer Service Training courses that teaches customer service skills and service recovery techniques to managers and employees. IMG also offers a one-day “Creating Customer Loyalty” workshop that shows executive leaders how to create a strong service culture designed to attract and retain loyal customers. To find out how to apply these concepts in your business, please call IMG at 702-258-8334, or by e-mail at Also visit our website at

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