As customer service consultant, assisting companies in improving their customer service and customer experience, I know that service breakdowns-glitches-are unavoidable in any business that serves customers. Therefore, being prepared to address such service failures can make all the difference.

Based on the best practices of the greatest customer-centric organizations in the world (Ritz-Carlton, Nordstrom, Starbucks, Zappos, and others), I instruct my consulting clients to respond to every service failure with a specific stepwise sequence. (For additional detail and implementation advice, you may want to look inside my most recent book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service)

1. Apologize and ask for forgiveness.

2. Review the complaint with your customer.

3. Fix the problem and then follow up: Either fix the issue in the next twenty minutes or follow up within twenty 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.

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

Let me run through these steps in detail.

Step 1: Apologize and Ask for Forgiveness.What's needed is a sincere, personal, non-mechanical apology.

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. Overall, he wants to feel important to you. This means that the key to an effective apology, to getting back on the right foot with your customer, is to convey at the outset that you are going to take his side and share his viewpoint.

Step 2: Go Over the Complaint with Your Customer.In Step 1, you've begun an alliance with your customer; in Step 2, those collaborative feelings will let you explore:

  • What actually went wrong, from the customer's perspective
  • What the customer needs for a good outcome

These aren't good places to jump to conclusions. They're issues you want to take time to explore in some detail with the customer.

Step 3: Fix the Problem and Then Follow Up.So you've decided to replace a substandard service or product. That's a step in the right direction-but it's only a first step. Remember that the customer has been stressed, inconvenienced, and slowed down by your failings. Merely giving her back what she expected to receive is unlikely to restore satisfaction.

A key principle in fixing a problem is to work to alleviate the customer's sense of injustice-of having been wronged or let down. You do this through the attitude you convey, certainly, but you also do it 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.

Ideally, the ''something extra'' you come up with will change the nature of the event for her: your special and creative efforts on her behalf will come to the foreground in the picture of the event she paints for herself and others, online or off, and the initial problem will move to the background.

Follow Up If you've handled the problem yourself, check in promptly with the customer after the intended resolution. This underscores your concern. and also lets you catch lingering unresolved issues.

Immediate follow-up is also important when you have reassigned (handed off) the customer's problem to somebody else: Did the customer end up being (and feeling) taken care of by the technician to whom you assigned her issue? You'll only find out if you check back in with the customer. Besides, customers want you, their original ally, to follow up with them on such questions, not just somebody over in, say, IT, not even if you know for a fact that the IT person is best equipped to help.

Step 4: Document the Problem in Detail. It's natural to want to give yourself a breather after solving a customer's problem. Still, it's important to record, every single time, the details of what went wrong-promptly, before the memory can fade or become distorted. I call this "the deposition." Be scrupulous and meticulous with this documentation phase; the only way to prevent serious problems from recurring is to document the problem for careful analysis later.

Published on: Jun 19, 2015