Recovery! Turning Service Failures Around

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Jul 08, 2019

By Leonardo Inghilleri

Service breakdowns are uncomfortable, and they require training to resolve. However, you'll find an opportunity hidden inside your company's worst moments: the opportunity to bring a customer closer to you. Indeed, you can learn to handle service breakdowns so masterfully that they actually help you to create loyal customers.

The Four Steps to Great Service Recoveries
Reacting like trial lawyers is a hard habit for service providers to break. To get your staff out of the courtroom rut and ensure they don't lapse back into it, respond to each service failure with a specific stepwise sequence:

Step 1. Apologize and ask for forgiveness.

Step 2. Review the complaint with your customer.

Step 3. Fix the problem and then follow up: Either fix the issue in the next 20 minutes or follow up within 20 minutes to check on the customer and explain the progress you have made. Follow up after fixing things as well, to show continuing concern and appreciation.

Step 4. Document the problem in detail to allow you to permanently fix the defect by identifying trends.

Let's run through these steps in more detail:
1. Apologize and Ask for Forgiveness

What does a customer want out of an apology? He wants to be listened to, closely. He wants to know you're genuinely sorry. He wants to know you think he's right, at least in some sense. He wants to know you are taking his input seriously.

Pay close attention to how you apologize, because apologies that come off as insincere will alienate customers. If you're like the rest of us, you'll sometimes feel an urge to earnestly pretend you're apologizing, when you're in fact mounting a canny defense argument. Learn to sniff out fake apologies—your own and your staff's—in order to protect your relationships with customers.

One key to an effective apology is to stretch the apology out, extending it until the customer begins to really connect with you. When an unrushed apology has finally defused a customer's anger, she will spontaneously signal that she is beginning to feel allied with you by saying something like "I understand that it's not personally your fault." This improvement in tone tells you that you're ready for Step 2.

2. Go Over the Complaint with Your Customer
Fully exploring the customer's issue often requires you to ask rudimentary questions—even ones that can feel insulting to a customer, like "Are you sure you typed your password correctly?" We refer to these as DYPII ("Did You Plug It In?") questions. DYPII questions are likely to get customer hackles up. If you raise DYPII questions before you've finished Step 1, they'll often be considered offensive, but after you've developed collaborative feelings in Step 1, the same questions are generally tolerated well.

Language is crucial in service recovery and needs to be addressed in a lexicon you create for your business. Little matters more when making a recovery: You'll never successfully get through it without the right words and phrasing. "I'm sorry, I apologize" are the words, delivered sincerely, that your customer wants to hear. Phrases like "It's our policy" and any synonyms for "You're wrong" must be banished.

If, in fact, the customer is wrong and there is a bona fide (e.g., safety-related or legally required) reason to point this out, you need words that express this obliquely—such as "Our records seem to indicate" and "Perhaps" so that she can realize her error but also save face.

In fact, the classically infuriating DYPII question, "Did you plug it in?" can be rendered as "Maybe the wall connection is loose. Can you do me a favor and check where it plugs into the socket?"

3. Fix the Problem and Then Follow Up

A key principle in fixing a problem is to resolve the customer's sense of injustice—of having been wronged or let down. You do this by providing something extra.

You can find a way to restore the smile to almost any customer's face, whether it's a free upgrade or a more creative offering, like one-on-one consultation time with an expert on your staff. Collaborate with your wronged customer to figure out what would feel like valuable compensation to her, or use your initiative to get going in the right direction.

For some customers the most valuable compensation isn't material. Some customers respond most positively to a chance to help improve your company. These customers want most of all to help make your service better, protect future customers from any similar wrongs, or feel assured that their advice is important to you. Customers who express critiques or suggestions are often expressing a desire to be involved in your company. In a way, they are offering themselves as unpaid volunteers. This sense of connection goes a long way toward helping them to become loyal to you. Don't squander the opportunity to connect with them during a service failure.

The Elements of Follow-Up
Various approaches to the follow-up are appropriate in different service settings, but they all should include immediate, internal, and wrap-up components. Together, the goal of these components is to ensure that the recovery goes correctly, that your customer feels appropriately taken care of, and that your organization gets the full benefit of customer loyalty from your recovery efforts.

Immediate Follow-up: If you've handled the problem yourself, check in promptly with the customer after the intended resolution. This underscores your concern. It also lets you catch lingering unresolved issues. Immediate follow-up is also important when you have reassigned the customer's problem to somebody else. Customers want you, their original ally, to follow up, not just somebody in IT.

Internal Follow-up. Others in your organization need to be alerted immediately to the service failure a customer experienced.

Wrap-Up: Solidify your relationship with the customer by following up again with a handwritten note or phone call when the episode is over: "I'm sorry you experienced this problem. I'm so pleased to have you as a customer, and I am looking forward to welcoming you back."

4. Document the Problem in Detail

It's natural to want to give yourself a breather after solving a customer's problem. Still, make sure your staff is trained to record, every single time, the details of what went wrong—promptly, before the memory can fade or distort. We call this the deposition. Be scrupulous: The only way to prevent serious problems from recurring is to document the problem for careful analysis later.

The particular details will depend on your business, but they usually include such notes as the time of day, the type of product or service, how busy your business was at the time, and the details of the customer's circumstances. Your goal in using this documentation is to identify trends or patterns that hint at underlying causes.

Write-Offs Lead to Write-Offs
It doesn't always feel good to go to extreme lengths to pacify a customer. It can be hard to remember the upside, to know that your work is ultimately going to pay off. So here's an overriding philosophy which can help you through thankless moments: Individual customers are irreplaceable. Regardless of the size of your market segment, once you start writing off customers, we can predict the day in the future when you'll be out of business.

We suggest in the strongest terms that you think of every one of your customers as a core customer—and treat the loss of a customer as a tragedy to be avoided.

© 2010 Leonardo Inghilleri and Micah Solomon. This article is adapted from Exceptional Service/Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization, by Leonardo Inghilleri and Micah Solomon. Used by permission of the publisher, AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Leonardo Inghilleri is executive vice president and managing partner of West Paces Consulting, a subsidiary of the West Paces Hotel Group. Micah Solomon is president of Oasis Disc Manufacturing and founder of the “College of the Customer” Website. They are coauthors of Exceptional Service/Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization (AMACOM, 2010).