I recently had a small remodeling job in my home that, despite excellent intentions on the part of the provider, did not go well. This project failure got me thinking about service recovery and what exactly that means. I have also come to realize that the definition may be different, depending on whether you sit on the customer side or on the provider side. After all, where we stand is always based on where we sit.

Most of us, as leaders, focus our attention on getting things done right the first time. In manufacturing, error rates are measured down to the level of “six sigma”. While excellence in delivery is an appropriate goal for high performing companies, even high performing companies make mistakes. And for me, true excellence is reflected in what happens next. In short, true excellence shows up when service recovery is required.

In my experience, what the customer wants falls into two parts, acknowledgement of the error and assurance that the provider will find a solution to the problem.

What often happens looks more like this…

  • Instead of acknowledging there was an error, the customer contact person seeks to explain the problem. Sometimes this effort to explain may appear to the customer as avoidance or worst case, blaming the customer.
  • Instead of seeking to find a solution to the problem, the customer contact person may simply abdicate. Sometimes, in a true effort to please the customer, the rep leaves the problem solving to the customer, and simply says, “tell me what you want and I will do it”.

Our folks who are in front of customers all the time are faced with service recovery situations frequently. Most excellent companies train their people to do it right, and employ good quality control measures to ensure this outcome. These same companies also train their people to “give good customer service” when a problem arises. As a result, when there is a small product or service failure, the contact person can successfully diffuse and handle the situation themselves. In fact, lots has been written about empowering customer facing staff to recover, and many companies employ these techniques. Examples include “try me” items at Whole Foods, to the much quoted “Ritz Carlton way”.

Sometimes though, the failure to perform is significant both in terms of dollars and customer satisfaction. It is in these situations that excellent companies have an escalation process, perhaps even a task force to resolve the situations. For me, this represents true excellence for two reasons. First, the customer feels valued and feels assured that the problem will be solved. And, equally important, the line person has support in resolving the problem.

I leave you with these two questions:

  • What is your escalation process when a significant failure to deliver happens? Are you or someone from your leadership team notified immediately?
  • Have you defined “significant” so that your line folks know the situations they can and should handle themselves and the ones that they need to escalate?

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain


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