Customer Obsession - Service Recovery
by Rick Sidorowicz

The concept of Customer Obsession takes customer service beyond 'lip service' to make it a fundamental element of your business model, core values, 'culture' and operating strategy. The purpose is to provide your customers the most memorable service experience and in the process achieve a significant and powerful differentiation from your competitors. 

Customer Obsession is first and foremost a 'value' and an 'ethic'. You can't do customer obsession. It's not a program. And if you are looking at it that way the best it can be is another version of  'lip service'.  It is a 'value' and an 'ethic' in the sense that you have decided you are customer obsessed.  It is fundamental as it is the way you look at the world. It is 'right' just because you say so - and believe it to be the most honest, ethical and effective way to do business. 

In the first two articles of this series we examined the power of the "memorable experience" and "no sale is ever final," and how to begin the process of cultural change. In this article we will discuss "service recovery" - a most powerful approach that can bring customer obsession to life in your organization. 'Service recovery' deals with the handling of customer dissatisfaction, customer complaints, returns and any customer problems or difficulties with your firm's service.  Creating a service recovery 'process' grounded in the ethic of  customer obsession can very quickly engage the imagination of your associates and service providers, and bring your values to life on the front lines.

Throughout this series I encourage you to rely on your personal experiences of 'service' to validate the concepts presented. Do they ring true to you in your experience? Do they make sense - common sense?  Please follow the logic of service recovery for a moment.

Assume a customer is fully satisfied with a purchase. Everything is OK and fully met her expectations. How many people will she tell of that experience? One or two, possibly three or four? It probably depends on the circumstances of the conversation i.e. if asked for a referral, if a comment is made by another on the product selected, if comparisons of products or experiences are being discussed, etc. I think it's safe to expect that customer will tell a few others of that experience. 

Back to the impact of a memorable positive experience ... 

Assume a customer has a very positive and memorable experience with you. The experience somehow exceeded his expectations, whatever they were. Perhaps the server was more attentive and thorough than expected, or the price was better than expected, or he received a double latte with room to go while he waited, or delivery and set-up was no charge. How many people will he tell about that experience? Definitely more than the first example, but how much more? Given that service that exceeds your expectations is quite rare, I suggest that the positive referrals will be at least a ten-fold increase over the first example -  and it will be an unqualified number of referrals. I suggest that he will tell many others of that positive and memorable experience. And if that person expects good service as the price of admission these days, and that expectation is exceeded by great or memorable service, he will absolutely rave about you and give active and positive referrals. You create "raving fans" by exceeding expectations - but we know that ... sort of.

So we have a satisfied customer telling a few others about that 'satisfactory' experience. Let's say that number is two to four. And we can 'get' that a customer whose expectations are exceeded ... perhaps "wowed" ... will tell many. Let's say that number is ten to twenty. (Test this out now - how many would you tell? How many have you told?) What about another likely and very common possibility?

A customer has a negative experience with you, and (hint) all negative experiences are very memorable. The product didn't work. It wasn't delivered when needed and promised. The customer was ignored. Your associate was rude. The customer had a problem that wasn't rectified. How many people will she tell about that experience?  And how 'active' do you think she will be in giving negative referrals for your business? I suggest she will actively tell a lot of others about her 'problem' with you for a very long time. It's like never forgetting vs always remembering. I suggest that the number of memorable negative referrals will be at least twice that of memorable positive experiences. Test it out. Satisfed customer tells two others. Wowed customer tells ten others. Dissatisfied customer tells twenty others, or perhaps fifty others. Wow!

Just imagine for a moment, how many others a customer will tell about the negative experience with you if they have taken the time and expense in most cases to write a letter to complain or call. (And imagine the frustration on top of it all in dealing with your 'customer care' hotlines - the silly music and repetitive smiley face voices - while you wait on hold, stew and then fume!) I suggest that the customer that has had a negative (and very memorable) experience with you and attempts to contact you will tell ... hundreds of others about you, and that may be a conservative number!

What a state of affairs! We're tolerated if do deliver good service, mildly promoted if we exceed our customers' expectations and punished very severely if we don't. We're almost tempted to keep everything very mediocre - to avoid the worst case scenerio. Let's just give everyone a mediocre script to perform, build in a few buffers to attempt to placate the complainers, and keep our fingers crossed and hope we stay out of trouble. Sound familiar? It's lip service! Trouble is ... we - you and I and almost everyone we know - expects better. More and more people everyday are raising their expectations and view 'lip service' to 'customer service' with contempt - and that's a mild word.

But there's more. Assume you have a customer that has had a very negative experience with your firm. They have been through it all and they are very, very angry and frustrated. They expect more 'lip service' from you. They now hold you in contempt. Imagine if you will, that you own up to the mistake and fix the problem to the customer's complete satisfaction. How many people will he tell about that experience? Not many unfortunately, because there is one extremely important ingredient missing. An apology may be enough for some people some of the time. Fixing the problem may also be enough for most people most of the time. But the some or most people and some or most of the time again sounds just like ... lip service (bingo!) and that unfortunately is not enough today! 

From a value of customer obsession we need to go beyond. All service recovery - in terms of dealing effectively with customer complaints, returns, problems and deficiencies requires a simple three step intervention by your front line associates.

Step 1 - The Apology and Accountability
"I am very, very sorry that our product didn't meet your expectations, or wasn't delivered on time, or fell apart, or was too complicated to assemble, or your spouse didn't like it." You are genuinely sorry aren't you? Or do you expect to have a certain number of defects and problems to deal with? (In which case you have a very, very serious fundamental problem with your product or service!) Whose problem is it? Is it the customer's? Absolutely not! Your product or service didn't work! Period! Whose problem? It's your %$&@ problem! Isn't it? How about - "I apologize sincerely for not meeting your needs, and I will do anything I need to - to make it right to your complete satisfaction."

Step 2 - Make it Right
Probe and explore with the customer what "making it right" means for them. (Hint - very hard to script for 'lip service' - it's based on the unique circumstances and requires a decision of your front line based on their values and ethics i.e. customer obsession. An exchange? No problem!  A repair - no problem! A refund - no problem! No receipt? No problem (see No Sale is Ever Final.) The operating words are:

Whatever it takes!
no problem!

At this point in the service recovery process most customers will have appreciated your interest in their satisfaction and will come to terms with what they require to 'make it right.' To get to this point may of itself be a 'wow' factor for many ... but there is more..

Step 3 - The Wow Factor!
This is a mandatory step in service recovery from a fundamental position of customer obsession. You have apologized. You have taken full accountability for your problem. You have explored and agreed with the customer on how to make it right to their complete satisfaction. Only one thing left to do. Wow the customer! 

"I am very pleased that I was able to correct the problem to your complete satisfaction. Please accept this gift certificate as a token of our appreciation." (Wow!) Or - "I apologize for you having to drive back again to rectify this situation. Please accept this $10 for your trouble." (Wow!) Or - "I will deliver this to you later this evening." (Wow!)  Or - "Please have a latte or lunch while you wait for the repairs." (Wow!) Or - whatever it takes to absolutely WOW your customer - and it's not about money. It's about whatever it takes, in this unique situation, to demonstrate to your customer that you are accountable for their complete satisfaction, you value them as your customer, you have pride in the products and services you provide, you regret the inconvenience you have caused them and ... you care. 

Assume you have a customer that has had a very negative experience with your firm. They have been through it all and they are very, very angry and frustrated. They expect more 'lip service' from you. They call, or walk into your establishment. The first person they meet greets them with a smile. The customer says she has a problem. She is very angry. The associate probes and interacts to discover the problem. The customer becomes less angry as there appears to be someone that is genuinely interested in solving her problem. The associate apologizes for causing the customer an inconvenience and takes full accountability to make it right and solve the problem to the customer's complete satisfaction. The customer senses that this is not the typical 'problem solving' experience. They discuss a few options and alternatives based on the customer's needs and concerns. They make it right to the customer's complete satisfaction. The customer appears to be fully satisfied with the outcome of the situation. The associate then 'wows' the customer with a unique response based on the unique needs of the situation - delivery, a coffee, $10 for your trouble, a movie pass, cab fare, lunch, a gift certificate - whatever it takes! 

How many people do you think your customer will tell about that experience? It was originally a very memorable negative experience - a disaster, that through an effective customer obsessed service recovery intervention turned into a wonderful, very positive and unexpected wow experience! Do you think she will tell a few as in being satisfied? Or many as if her expectations were exceeded in the first place? Or perhaps a lot - as in the example of  being dissatisfied? Your originally very dissatisfied and now wowed customer will tell ...


A customer that has had a very negative experience and through a customer obsessed service recovery process is 'wowed' will tell almost everyone they know of their new 'recovered' positive and extremely memorable experience. Test it out for yourself. How many of these experiences have you had? (Likely very rare.) How many people have you told about that experience? (Likely everyone!) I suggest that it is a service encounter that you will always remember! And it is very 'active' in that you tell everyone and anyone about that unique and memorable experience, for a very long time.

I have a friend who swears by Black and Decker. She bought a lawnmower that didn't work and wrote a letter to complain. An Exec VP called to apologize (Wow!) and they sent her the latest new and improved supercharged model instead (Wow!) It was over ten years ago and she is still a 'raving fan' - more like an evangelist for anything Black and Decker. She now owns everything Black and Decker! 

I have a friend who bought a suit at Tip Top Tailors and it was promised for pick up by noon. It wasn't finished. He was very disappointed and angry. The associate apologized and addressed the issue immediately. They needed an hour to complete the alterations and the associate asked him if he could wait for the work to be done or would prefer to have it delivered. (Wow!) My friend said he could have lunch and then come back in a hour to pick up his suit. The associate asked him to bring in his receipt for lunch and he would reimburse him for the inconvenience. (Wow!) My friend asked, "For how much?" The associate advised, "Whatever you were planning to have for lunch." (Wow!)  I think he said he had a burger, NY fries and a Coke. He now has an almost fanatical point of view of where to shop for clothing, and he comes in for a new wardrobe every single season!

A customer complained of an experience in a store where she believed she was treated very poorly. She did not complete her purchase and vowed never to return to that store again. The VP Ops returned her call and apologized and asked if she would accept a recovery solution from the store team. She specified she did not want to be contacted personally by anyone in the store. The feedback was given to the store team to resolve - a most difficult service recovery challenge. The team of associates decided to send a card of apology to the customer, signed by all associates. And in respect of her decision not to return to their store they included a gift certificate and the locations of the nearest stores where it could be applied. (Wow!) Also respecting her wishes they delivered a fruit basket (and this was not a fruit store) left with a neighbour to avoid any direct encounter which they understood would be a source of embarrassment to her. (Major wow!) The customer returned to the store and met every associate, accepting their apology and thanking them for their sensitivity and their wonderful gift. She has subsequently spent thousands of dollars in the store and is an active and vocal spokesperson for the retail enterprise. 

A customer obsessed service recovery intervention is one of the most powerful tools of cultural change. Imagine for a moment how the dreaded customer complaint or return (which typically sends associates and VPs underground) turns into an opportunity - where... and please listen slowly here ... associates line up and can't wait to deal with a customer 'problem.' Imagine the power - for your associates and your enterprise - of being able to use your creative talents to recover and wow and create customers for life. 

We are only as strong as our weakest links, and how we deal with our failures and shortcomings demonstrates to the world who we are and what we stand for. From an 'ethic' of customer obsession every mistake, every screw-up, every dissatisfied customer provides a wonderful opportunity to live up to our values and ethics and truly be 'of service.'  Service recovery is a key intervention and point of great leverage to bring a customer obsessed strategy to life on the front lines of your organization. Stay tuned for more on how to 'make it so' for your enterprise.


Rick Sidorowicz is the Publisher and Editor of The CEO Refresher and
the Minister of Culture of High Performance Retail.

Many more articles in High Performance Retail in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2001 by Rick Sidorowicz. All rights reserved.

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