When the Customer Experience Goes Awry [Differentiation Through Service Recovery]

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Forgive me for sounding braggadocious, but I AM PERFECTLY IMPERFECT! But then again so are you and so is your business.

Unfortunately, some leaders either don’t know they are imperfect, or they seek to fool consumers into thinking their businesses are flawless. In those environments, team members read the invisible handwriting on the wall and actively work to perpetuate the perfection myth (overlooking shortcomings, casting blame away from themselves, and even suggesting customers are responsible for service breakdowns).



So, here’s the good news – when you accept that not everything will go perfectly every time it is both liberating and empowering. That acceptance enables leaders and team members to learn, grow, and improve. When I first began as a juggler, I often spoke of guilt-free drops. In those days I dropped a lot of juggling balls (no one got hurt), and I learned through the process. The goal was never to drop the balls, but each time I did, I learned how to approximate the kinesthetics of good tosses and good catches.

In business, guilt-free drops enable team members to take responsibility for shortcomings when they interact with customers and strive to find solutions for individual customers as well as overall process challenges.

I’ve been fortunate to work with and write about leaders who understand the importance of striving for excellence while graciously owning responsibility for and learning from breakdowns. In my second book about Starbucks, titled Leading the Starbucks Way, I share how Howard Schultz and other leaders created a customer promise regarding product perfection and put processes in place when Starbucks products failed to fulfill that promise. As context, I noted the following in Leading the Starbucks Way:



In circumstances where products do not live up to the expectations of consumers, a critical moment-of-truth occurs. From the perspective of the customer, the internal dialogue usually goes something like this: “Should I let the business know that this isn’t right or should I leave bad enough alone?” “Will they blame me by saying something like, ‘That’s what you ordered’?” “Will they stand behind this product or is it my problem now?” or “How much hassle will I encounter in an effort to get this remedied?” From the company’s side of the interaction, the internal dialogue should be, “What can we do to increase the likelihood people will let us know when they encounter a problem?” “How can we assure that every employee knows how to handle service recovery?” and “How do we use this breakdown as an opportunity to demonstrate integrity and facilitate greater levels of customer engagement?”

Specifically, I went on to add…

Since complaints are opportunities to both re-engage customers and demonstrate integrity, strong leaders look for ways to encourage customers to share concerns. At Starbucks this begins with offering a customer-facing promise displayed in Starbucks stores and on their website which reads, “We want you to be completely satisfied. If for any reason you are not satisfied with your purchase, you may return it for a replacement or refund of the purchase price.” While it is easy to make such a promise, it is much more difficult to stand behind it.  John Hargrave, founder of the humor site zug.com and author of Sir John Hargrave’s Mischief Maker’s Manual, decided to put the Starbucks promise to the test. John writes, “But would Starbucks really replace anything? To find out, I decided to buy the most perishable item on the menu, keep it in my garage for several weeks, then attempt to exchange it.”

Suffice it to say, the barista who handled John Hargrave’s “soured” drink did so graciously (even though it clearly was not a service or product breakdown created by Starbucks). I offer similar examples in my books about Zappos, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, and my upcoming book about Airbnb.

I will leave you with a 5-step service recovery model, which I help clients bring to life in their businesses. The details needed to execute this model and deliver a differentiated approach to service breakdowns can be found in my book The New Gold Standard:

  1. Share a genuine and compassionate reaction to the person’s distress.
  2. Offer appropriate apologies.
  3. Assure the person you will take care of the issue.
  4. Individually, and through the resources of your team, see that the problem is taken care of in a way that meets the satisfaction of the customer and does not recur.
  5. Go one step further to demonstrate that you want to try to compensate for the person’s loss or frustration.


I would love to talk to you about your “perfectly imperfect” business and efforts to differentiate your customer experience through your gracious service recovery. Simply reach out to me. I’m here to help you take service “breakdowns” and turn them into service “breakthroughs.”

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