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When "At Your Service" Fails: Six Key Steps to Service Recovery

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Hoboken, NJ (November 2010)—Consider this scenario that could easily be played out in a furniture store with a botched delivery, paperwork mistake on a custom order, damaged goods or missing furniture hardware...

It's 8 a.m. and you're in an upscale hotel in Times Square—part of a well-known chain you regularly frequent—getting ready for a crucial business meeting. As you turn on your hairdryer, the power goes out. A bit nervous but not yet panicked (it's just a blown fuse, after all), you call the "At Your Service" number and hear "Someone is on the way."

Fifteen minutes pass. Then twenty. All you can think about is the hotel's constantly looping "At Your Service" video assuring you staff will get you anything you need, anytime, anywhere. Your meeting is drawing closer, and your hair still hangs in wet strings. Twice more you call, anxiety turning to anger, both times getting the same (evidently canned) response from the "service" person. (Once she even asks, "What do you want me to do about it?")

Finally, the power comes back on, followed by a knock on the door. It's the maintenance man explaining that it wasn't his fault but the front desk's and making excuses about what went wrong internally. At no time does anyone acknowledge your inconvenience—or apologize for taking thirty-five minutes for what should have been a five-minute fix.

"This customer service nightmare was experienced by a business associate of mine," says Maribeth Kuzmeski, author of the new book, "...And the Clients Went Wild! How Savvy Professionals Win All the Business They Want."

"It follows the arc of the many customer service breakdowns that came before it," she adds. "One thing goes wrong, and then because a service recovery plan isn't completely understood by a business's entire staff, everything snowballs. The end result is an angry customer who vows never to return—and who may decide to share her anger with countless others with just the click of a mouse."

According to Kuzmeski, many companies spend tons of money and time on big customer service initiatives in order to woo new customers—but they end up losing their regular customers over little things.

"Customer relationships are made or broken when something goes wrong," she asserts. "If you don't have well-developed service recovery techniques in place, you'll lose the customer every time."

Below Kuzmeski explains what the hotel staff should have done and offers service recovery advice every business can use:

Learn to recognize (and truly understand) your customer's situation. Provide an individual care approach for your customers. For example, someone with children will have very different concerns from a busy businessperson and vice versa. Therefore, you must train your customer service people to recognize these key differences and adjust their responses accordingly.

"Teach service employees to understand the context of a situation and to sympathize with customers," says Kuzmeski. "At this New York hotel, the 'At Your Service' rep simply said, 'Someone is on the way.' When the problem still hadn't been fixed after almost thirty minutes, it became clear that she didn't understand that guests getting ready at 8 a.m. are probably in a bit of a time crunch. Otherwise, she would have put in more effort to reach the maintenance man more quickly."

Make sure what you're saying is happening really is happening. In other words, customer service is a lot more than just reciting a "Someone is on the way" script.

"When the hotel guest made the second call, it's very likely the front desk representative didn't actually check to see where the maintenance man was," says Kuzmeski. "By simply taking the time to locate him, not only would she have gotten the guest the service she needed more quickly, but she would have been handling the problem in a way that helped to build goodwill with the guest rather than just more headaches."

Be very specific about how the problem will be handled. When handling a customer service issue, let the customer know what is going to happen and when it is going to happen. The more information a customer has, the less anxious she feels.

"The front desk representative could have said, 'Someone is on the way. We will have your power back on in ten minutes,'" Kuzmeski explains. "That way the guest would have had a timeframe for when she could expect to be back in business. At the ten-minute mark, the employee should have then called the room to make sure the power was back on. Then, even if it wasn't, her guest would at least know she hadn't been forgotten."

Anytime you receive complaint #2, treat it like an emergency. Most people are fairly forgiving after one mistake—assuming you address it promptly. But when you get a second complaint, well, it's time to go into emergency mode. At that point there's no room for further delay or error. If you want to keep your customer, you must make sure the problem is taken care of immediately.

"At her hotel, my business associate had to call the customer service rep three times before the power came back on," says Kuzmeski. "And in a customer service situation, the third time is not the charm. At that point, a problem that could have easily been solved has turned into a service recovery nightmare. Unfortunately, for the hotel, it doesn't seem like anyone understood that."

Make sure the service brand permeates from top to bottom. The New York hotel in the anecdote is part of a larger chain, which has a rewards program for repeat customers.

When the guest called to complain, the rewards people naturally asked why. When she explained what had happened, they really seemed to get it. They understood the inconvenience and tried to make it up to her by offering additional rewards points.

"This hotel chain spent a lot of money on a special commercial touting its 'At Your Service' program, but when it came down to it, they hadn't properly trained their onsite staff," says Kuzmeski. "Essentially, the rewards program department was functioning as one company, the front desk person as a separate company, and the maintenance man as yet another company.

"The moral is clear," she adds. "Don't allow employees to silo your company. Make sure that everyone understands the customer service plan and that everyone knows how to work together to solve customer problems."

Don't assume your customers will give you a second chance. Think about it this way: If a customer has taken the time to call you about a problem, you are already getting lucky, so you'd better take care of it immediately. You don't always get a chance to make it right. Often, customers will just move on.

"Remember, your competition is constantly trying to sell the same product cheaper, faster, and better than you," says Kuzmeski. "Don't make it any easier for them by providing inadequate customer service. In this case, the hotel had three chances to salvage the relationship—and struck out all three times. Now my associate has said she'll take her business elsewhere. By completely mishandling a problem that could have been easily fixed, the hotel lost a very loyal client."

And here's the real concern: In an age of social media, it takes only one dissatisfied customer to create a PR disaster for a company. In fact, lately several national stories have cropped up featuring blogs and YouTube videos that customers have created for the sole purpose of sharing their tales of bad service with the world.

"The internet has really amplified the customer's voice," notes Kuzmeski. "It's increased her power exponentially. If someone were to 'go viral' with a negative story about your company, you might lose a lot more than one customer. It pays to do everything possible to make sure you have a strong service recovery plan in place.

"Remember, you can absolutely keep and create loyal customers in today's economy, but you have to have the service chops to take care of them," she concludes. "Make your customers and your relationships with them a priority—always! When you do so, you can create clients for life and guarantee the success of your business."

About the Author:  Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, is the author of five books, including ...And the Clients Went Wild! How Savvy Professionals Win All the Business They Want (Wiley, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-60176-1, $24.95, www.AndTheClientsWentWild.com) and The Connectors: How the World's Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for Life(Wiley, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-48818-8, $22.95, www.TheConnectorsBook.com). She is the founder of Red Zone Marketing, LLC, which consults with businesses from entrepreneurial firms to Fortune 500 corporations on strategic marketing planning and business growth. Maribeth has personally consulted with some of the world's most successful CEOs, entrepreneurs, and professionals. An internationally recognized speaker, she shares the tactics that businesspeople use today to create more sustainable business relationships, sales, and marketing successes.

She is an international keynote speaker and regularly speaks to audiences on topics relating to business development, marketing, and sales strategies. She is also a member of Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) andis a regular media contributor appearing on Fox News, ABC News, WGN-TV, and in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, theNew York Times, BusinessWeek, Entrepreneur, and Forbes.

Maribeth graduated with a degree in journalism from Syracuse University and has an MBA in marketing from The George Washington University. She lives in the Chicago, Illinois, area with her husband and two teenagers.

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