When Service Fails, You Must Overreact

Any time an organization fails to meet your needs or your expectations, that’s a service failure.

Service failures happen. Even the best organizations suffer an occasional lapse and deliver a less-than-stellar experience. The training didn’t cover that situation. The new employee misunderstood what to do. A piece of equipment failed despite being meticulously maintained. The software had a bug. The customer service team all caught the plague. Great organizations do their best to prevent service failures through design and constant improvement, but no organization is perfect. Service failures happen.

How an organization reacts to a service failure is what separates the good from the great. The impact of a service failure ranges from mild disappointment to enormous disaster, up to and including death (pro tip: don’t kill your clients).

Best Ways to React to Service Failure

Any time a service failure happens, your organization must respond quickly and excessively to recover:

  • “Quickly” is self-explanatory. Justice delayed is justice denied. The longer your customer has to wait and seethe in his own juices over the outrage that you have perpetrated upon him, the harder it’s going to be to recover his love and admiration. Don’t delay your response. Don’t bump it up the chain or, worse yet, hand the customer off from one person to another to resolve the issue. Empower your people to act quickly and independently to resolve service failures, and then audit their performance later to make sure they’re not giving away the store.
  • “Excessively” is much more subjective. Is a refund appropriate? An apology? It depends.

Be Excessive: Taking Steps to Restore the Customer’s Faith and Happiness

The absolute minimum you must do is restore the customer to the state he or she would have been in if the service failure had never happened. A refund, a replacement, or a do-over are all bare-minimum responses to the situation. Many organizations end there and miss an excellent opportunity in the process.

Next, you must compensate for the unhappiness that the failure caused. To do that, you must understand the impact that the service failure had on the customer. Did you lose her dinner reservation? On a normal night, a quick seating and apology might be enough, but was it her birthday or a special event involving family and friends? If so, you’d better be prepared to start comping desserts and providing an extreme level of attention. Was it her daughter’s birthday? Now you’re really in trouble. Lavish freebies and attention on the guest, her daughter, and every member of their party.

In situations like the one above, your goal is not to break even but to take a negative customer experience and transform it through positive overreaction. Create a positive, living story that your customer will repeat to everyone that he or she knows. Don’t skimp; now is not the time for bookkeeping. You’ve already lost something because of the failure; let it be a small amount of money rather than a customer and a chunk of your hard-earned reputation.

OK, so you’ve gotten close to the point that the customer is starting to forget about her initial anger and disappointment. Now you need to go above and beyond. Find a way to make the experience exceptional. Throwing money at the problem is one way, but it’s rarely the best way. By all means comp the meal (if you haven’t already), but find a concrete way to deliver a personalized experience. In my lost dinner reservation example, now would be a good time for the pastry chef to decorate a special cake for the birthday girl, or have the bartender deliver a round of Shirley Temples with glowing LED ice cubes on the house.

Customers will always talk about service failures; you can’t stop them, and it’s pointless to try. Instead, take a disaster and turn it into a legendary story. It’s during moments of crisis that great customer experience organizations shine the most.



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