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How Do You Recover From Customer Service Mistakes?

by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.

Yesterday, I had an unpleasant customer service experience that was pleasantly resolved. And the resolution was a good model of mistake resolutions. It was such a good model that I decided I was was going to write about it today.

We have a monitored alarm system in our house. When I turned it off in the morning, I noticed that an alert was flashing on the control panel. It said "failure to communicate." That is, it couldn't reach the monitoring service. The alert was prophetic.

I called the service immediately and they took the information, promising that I'd hear back from the tech people on when they'd be there to fix it. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, I called again. I was assured that a service ticket had been written and that I should hear something. Would I like to talk to the man in charge of the department? Sure. Oops. Answering machine. Leave message. Wait. Wait. Wait. Oh. Five o'clock. No call. No service. Call again.

Sorry, don't know what happened. Everyone's gone for the day except our monitoring personnel. "Did you make it clear you expected service today?" they asked. Golly, no. I only called to alert you. I don't pay for a security service because I actually want security. It's just for fun. And gee, just because you were supposed to call me back doesn't mean that I actually expected a call back. (No, I didn't actually say those things, I just thought them. But I did make it clear, politely, that I was unhappy with the "failure to communicate" by both the control panel and their service.)

We hung up with no information and no assurances of anything being done before the following day at best.

Imagine how disappointed I was in the service. How do you feel when one of your providers simply ignores you? Can they make it up to you? If you do something like this to your customers/clients can you make it up to them?

Yes. You can.

About fifteen minutes after the last call, the Vice President of the department in charge of the tech service called. So sorry. It was his fault. He totally dropped the ball on this. Could he come fix it in about an hour?

He came personally. He didn't send a service tech. He came with his own tools. He did the job. He apologized. He explained. He took the time to chat about the changes he -- as someone new to the company -- was trying to introduce to improve performance. We had an interesting talk about quality management and performance improvement. About the importance of people skills to management and performance improvement. (No, he didn't know that was my favorite subject -- it was just part of what he was sharing about himself.)

As we were talking, he made a great analogy that sparked the decision to write about my experience with him, even if just to share the image. He likened running a business to going out on a lake in a speed boat. The boat was the business vehicle, the lake was the business process and the wake represented the profits. He said that most business folks were more interested in the wake than the path the boat was taking. He was interested in taking a quality of service path and figured the wake would actually be greater as a result.

I said, yeah, it's kind of like the old saying "watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves," but in this case it should be changed to "watch the quality and the profits will take care of themselves."

It's very impressive when management takes the time and effort to personally correct mistakes and improve service. In most companies, there would have been an apology the next day. And a tech would have come out to do the service call. Maybe the next day. Maybe not. The management of this company apparently has a different dynamic.

I want to take the opportunity in telling this story to go over the basics of correcting customer service mistakes. Here's a list I've usually given clients to spark their memories of what to do when mistakes happen:

1. Take responsibility -- either directly for yourself or on behalf of your organization. (And for goodness sake, don't blame the customer for any part of it, even if they had some fault in it.)

2. Apologize and explain what happened. If you know what happened and if it's not confidential, just tell the client/customer. And, no, don't make up a story or try to spin it in some way.

3. Correct the mistake if possible or do what can be done about it. Sometimes it's not possible to correct the mistake. Time limits and physical realities can intervene. But there's always something that you can do to make things better.

4. Compensate the customer for the trouble if there's a great inconvenience or the mistake is impossible to correct.

5. Ask if the customer is satisfied or wants something more. Don't make the assumption you've done everything necessary. Everyone's expectations of what's fair are different. Ask if there's anything else you need to do.

6. Recognize that some customers can't be satisfied and will never forgive. No matter what you do, you can't directly change other people's feelings. Some people will accept your correction, but never forgive the mistake. That's just life.


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