Recovering from bad experiences effectively: actively seek out points of failure and address them promptly

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The expression ‘nobody is perfect’ has many different variations that mean the same however may apply in different contexts. Researching a few of them I learned very quickly that however bad a situation is there is always a way out. ‘Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.’ That’s an interesting one as I recall my dad of blessed memory shared with me frequently as a boy whenever he said ‘aim to reach for the stars and if you end up on the moon you would still have attained a high goal.’

There is a lot to learn from these nuggets about not being perfect. How about this one ‘No one and nothing is perfect, or we wouldn’t have uniqueness.’ Highlighting our imperfections makes us seem like we are making excuses for things that go wrong with us. This is no different from wrong customer service leading to a bad experience. Years ago far away in Singapore I met an ex-boss who was excited to see me from Ghana so he took me out to an Italian restaurant.

At the restaurant I made my order avoiding any plates of seafood (wary of my allergies), my boss ordered a lobster. It was a big one. As we tucked into our meals he started complaining about the taste of the lobster and called the waiter over. The lobster was rancid in taste. The conversation between them wasn’t exactly pleasant as the waiter was (unwittingly) making excuses. As it got heated his manager noticed the commotion and quickly came over and asked the waiter to attend to the next table.

Promptly, he asked my boss what his complaint was and immediately offered a replacement. Although my boss declined, the point was made an experience recovery had just taken place. I learned a few lessons that day on recovering from bad customer service. The key lesson is that customer service is extremely important, one needs to plan for and pursue vigorously so that you are ready with a response to appease your customer when things don’t go well.

Here are a few pointers to help us recover quickly when things go wrong as they very likely will now and again. Firstly, strive to anticipate and understand your customer’s needs. Secondly, ensure that your employees are empowered and can take ownership and resolve issues quickly when things go wrong. Thirdly, respond promptly and follow up to ensure full resolution. Fourthly, make amends and finally strengthen your communication lines to keep all engaged.

Anticipating your customer’s needs

In a project we are currently undertaking one cue we get frequently from the Project leader is not to ‘over-promise’ and ‘under-deliver’. When you raise your customer’s expectations and your products and services are unable to deliver what you have promised you to leave your customer disappointed and frustrated. Being realistic about your offering is key, don’t oversell yourself as doing so only sets you up for failure when you are unable to deliver on your promise.

Zeithaml, Parasuraman, and Berry, use the SERVQUAL Instrument to compare service quality performance with customer service quality need to establish alignment between customer expectations and the products and services provided. It essentially measures an organization’s service quality performance against the needs of its customers on five broad parameters – Responsiveness, Reliability, Empathy, Assurance, and Tangibles. This way you can find and plug the gaps between actual and perceived service aptly.

Examine the customer’s journey closely identifying the point(s) of failure along the journey. Assess what was there and what is different now to enable you to understand where failure took place along the customer experience pathway. Note that by doing so thoroughly not only are you better positioned to solve the problem for the customer, but you can also keep track, record these incidents and train your team to avoid service breakdowns in similar situations going forward.

Empowered employees

It goes without saying that when your employees feel cared for and supported, they will go above and beyond for the customers they serve. They are ultimately strong brand ambassadors as they very often contribute innovative ideas that help the business grow. Differentiate your customer experience by investing in employee experience programmes to help you find and close the gaps between what employees expect and what your organization is currently delivering.

Build mechanisms that encourage frontline staff and management to take ownership of the situation. “I will solve this problem for you”. When things do go wrong, a customer looks out for someone who will take charge of the situation, rather than pass the buck around or blame others for the service breakdown. My water situation has not been the best in the past few weeks, when you ask the field officers all they keep telling you is ‘ask the boss he knows what is happening’. How depressing! No employee experience evident here.

The breakdown in itself could have happened owing to a host of reasons perhaps way beyond the control of your frontlines. However, when it comes to recovering the situation, the buck stops at the person carrying out the recovery, so owning the situation and inspiring trust and confidence in the customer that you will solve the problem for them becomes a critical component in the resolution process. The Ritz Carlton encourages employees to spend up to $2000 to solve guest issues. Beyond the money, it is about giving control to the employees to use their time, effort and when needed to bring things to normalcy.

Responding promptly

The need to be prompt and efficient in responding and resolving issues cannot be over-emphasized. Timing is key when it comes to recovering to ensure that frustrations don’t fester for too long. The quicker you respond, the more likely you will be to resolve the issue before it gets out of hand. By responding quickly, you potentially turn a disgruntled customer into an advocate, a loyal brand ambassador.

However, settling the issue is not the end of the road. Every complaint, big or small, calls for a follow-up to check to see if the customer’s issue was resolved and if they are happy with how it was handled. Several things you can do to follow up include giving them a call or sending a card or email to let them know you are still concerned about their satisfaction. If possible, give them feedback on what measures you took internally as a result.

For example, if you shared the feedback with the staff, or implemented changes to your reservations process to make sure that special requests are tracked more effectively, make sure the follow-up is prompt not letting too much time pass before checking in on the customer.

Making amends

When things do go wrong ensure that you have the means for righting the wrong. This could be as simple as a sincere apology, sending a follow-up letter, or may include a small gift or token of appreciation. The common thing to do in reaction to a service breakdown is either waiving a bill or giving something complimentary to the customer. Whilst these strategies may work but only to an extent. The customer is more often than not, looking to be treated fairly.

By offering alternatives you give the customer a sense of control and put them back in the driver’s seat. Be more deliberate about recovering by doing the following; define a framework with your team and empower frontline staff to make certain decisions that allow for swift action and recovery. One way to achieve this is to invest in adequate training on how to handle customer complaints. This will go a long way in improving your overall customer satisfaction as your frontlines will respond to customer queries consistently across touchpoints.

To guarantee the right responses from your employees you must invest in educating them about the journey customers go on with the organization and the experiences they expect. When employees are aware of their impact on the experience be they frontline staff or back-of-office IT support both roles can impact whether a customer has a good experience or not through a branch office visit or system being down. To deepen empathy for customer pain points it is proposed that you can set up ‘Customer Rooms’ or ‘Listening Stations’ to help employees step into the shoes of the customer.

Strengthen your communication lines

Research shows that for every customer complaint, 26 other unhappy customers have remained silent. By encouraging your customers to provide feedback through questionnaires and the provision of direct lines of communication for sharing feedback you offer them useful conduits to share feedback, experience, and concerns in a way that prevents them from ‘barking at the wrong tree. Avoid situations where customers keep their sentiments to themselves, note that often the silent ones are the ones who cause the most damage.

Good communication between companies and customers means growth, while bad communication means loss of business. You must develop effective communication lines both internally and externally to help your business grow and sustain. One way of understanding your customer is to leverage big data. Examine all the bits of data to enable you to get to know who your customers are, what they want, and how they communicate. One nugget shared which I agree with totally is for you to talk to them about what they want to discuss, not what you want to foist on them.

Another useful approach is to make it easy for your customers to contact you. Customers get frustrated when you give them the run-around when they are trying to get information from a company. Adopt an omnichannel approach so that your customers get a seamless and simplified experience regardless of how they get in touch or shop. Finally, be consistent with your messaging regardless of how the customer chooses to contact you. Avoid saying one thing on one channel and something different elsewhere.

This is what the experts say. Develop consistent messaging and make sure all your employees, agents, managers – anyone who forms part of your company – know what the message is. That means making sure your internal communications are consistent and simplified. The manager at the restaurant where I visited with my boss can take a cue from this, that waiter definitely needed some education.

Gearing up customer experience is good for the small business The Writer is a Change Management and Customer Experience Consultant. He can be reached on 059 175 7205,

[email protected],




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