Panning for Service Gold


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A fun activity for my grandchildren when they visit my North Georgia weekend home is panning for gold. The sand comes from a sandy river bank near a sight that was a part of the gold rush in the early 1800’s.

Panning for gold is not easy; it works like this. You first put a double hand full of sand in a steel pan and dip it in the water filling it half full of water. Next, you gently move the pan back and forth as you let small amounts of yellow sand wash over the side of the pan.

The objective is to let the black sand sink to the bottom of the gold pan. But, this is the point where panning for gold gets real serious. Impatience or strong arming the way the pan is shaken means the black sand escapes over the side with the yellow sand. Once black sand is the only sand left in the pan, you are rewarded with flacks of gold. Gold resides among the black sand.

Customer service is like panning for gold among the sand. But, like service, sand can also come in a black form—those dark, disappointing moments that cause customers to doubt your capacity and/or caring. The way you handle the dark sand can be the difference between losing a customer over the side and turning a customer oops into the opportunity for gold (a.k.a., loyalty). Great service recovery takes patience. It also requires focusing on the gold in the customer…not, their anger on the surface. It means taking time to mine the customer’s needs and expectations so a solution is targeted.

Understanding the customers experience with the “black sand” of service starts with understanding how customers view service recovery. Service recovery is about keeping customers satisfied after the worst happens. Service recovery includes all the actions people take to get a disappointed customer back to a state of satisfaction. Remarkable “gold finding” recovery means doing it all in a way that makes customers even more loyal to the organization after the fact.

To the most skeptical customer, the true test of an organization’s commitment to service quality isn’t its billboard or TV pledges, but the way it responds when something goes awry. Remarkable recovery isn’t simply about effective damage control or efficient problem resolution. It’s as much about fixing the customer – repairing the disappointment caused by the breach of faith – as it is fixing the customer’s problem.

Nothing creates a stronger bond between service provider and customer than when a problem is fixed with competence, speed and most importantly, empathy. Such recovery ensures the pieces that have been “glued back together” after a mishap are even stronger than the original, unshattered versions. That is because prior to any problems, customers operate on hope – hope that in the event of a breakdown, the organization will respond in good faith. In the aftermath of good recovery, they have proof of that commitment – and surging confidence in the utility. Studies by the Arlington, VA research firm TARP show that customers who have a problem spectacularly resolved are more loyal to the organization than had they not experienced any difficulty at all.

How can you find gold in the dark sands of service?

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


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