Taming a Service Volcano


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Working in Nicaragua I was surprised to see active volcanoes with large craters and smoke seething from their peaks. Volcanoes usually offer a warning before “blowing their tops.” Sometimes it is added smoke bellowing into the skyline; sometimes it is a series of minor earthquakes. When the internal pressure builds to a certain point, fire and heat go sky high; volcanic ash and lava spread way beyond the crater. The greatest tragedy is that nothing grows in the path of the lava for many, many years.

Customer issues are a lot like volcanoes. Customers typically provide subtle warnings before they blow their tops. It could be a minor complaint or an unexpected change in buying habits. It could be an unexplained reserve or shyness on the part of the customer. It could also be nitpicking behaviors or practices out of character with the size of the issue or conflict. If service providers ignore the signs of discontent and fail to intervene, they catch the wrath and heat of customer anger. Worse still, unhappy customers spew their “upsetness” to all in their path, severely stunting the organization’s capacity to grow new customers.

What are customer cues that might make eruptions more predictable and less severe? Customers use several factors that shape their degree of upsetness when disappointments occur. Knowing the impact on customers of a service hiccup can help gauge high quickly they will show their ire. Take a simple service encounter like a delayed commercial flight. The impact can be quite different for a customer needing to make a crucial connection versus one who is flying to his or her final destination. A customer traveling with all his or her office toys will view a long delay very differently than one forced to make a reluctant visit to the airport newsstand. How will a service volcano impact your customers? Does your response to customers need to be segmented based on its impact on them?

Time is another valence effect that can make the emotional thermometer remain at normal or become “feverish.” Consider an outage of any sort—from electricity to the computer system being down. As a service provider, time is your enemy in a crisis. But, contingency planning with the customer in mind and/or involved, can help keep the customer’s anger in check as the “clock of mayhem” continues to tick. Customer intelligence, specifically targeted at learning what customers expect at various stages of a delay in restoration, can help instruct an effective service recovery plan. What do you know for sure about how delay of restoration impacts your customers?

Finally, a service recovery back-up plan can quell an impending customer emotional eruption. A power outage is far less anxious with a reliable generator standing by. A frightening weather situation is made more bearable with a well-stocked, well-constructed basement nearby. Customers view favorably those service providers that help them craft an anxiety-reducing back-up plan. And, back-up plans jointly crafted with customers can add immeasurably to the customer’s trust reserve. That reserve can cause a customer to have more patience and a greater willingness to forgive when a service disappointment comes along.

Beware of customer “lava” with today’s pervasiveness and power of social media. While the range of a volcanic ash and lava may be measured in miles; the range of a customer explosion, enhanced by the reach of the Internet, can be measured in thousands of other customers. What steps are you taking to read the hints of an impending customer volcano? What can you do to prevent the customer’s roar from becoming a major explosion that severely stunts your service reputation?

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group (chipbell.com) 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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