‘I’ll Buy it Back from You:’ Dealing with Rising Consumer Expectations

We all know it when we experience it.  Things do go wrong…the never-wear-out jeans wear out, the laundry cracks a shirt button, the steak is too rare, the knock in the engine comes back again…we feel let down, taken advantage of, or just plain furious.  Somehow, we were counting on everything working and the experience came up short.  Whether it is a machine failure, a surly receptionist, or a phone call not returned, we all have experienced service failure…and judged the culprit by how well they responded.

Customer expectations for service are climbing.  As they do, all employees of all organizations are having to deal with customers who experience service failure and seem to demonstrate less tolerance and more wrath than ever in the past.   How employees respond can very often turn disappointment into customer satisfaction—sometimes even into customer advocacy!

Great service recovery, however, does not happen by luck.  It is planned, trained, and lead.   Obviously, preventive (“do it right the first time”) maintenance on those troublesome fail points in a service process is an important first step.  But, even the very best service operation will occasionally fail.  And, there are fail points in service that are just too expensive to fix.

Airlines, for instance, could prevent passengers with tickets from ever getting bumped.  They could only take as many reservations as there are seats on the plane.  But, the number of “no-shows” causes that practice to make no economic sense.  The consequence of the intentional over booking practice, however, is a guarantee that some ticketed passengers will occasionally be disappointed.  Smart airlines anticipate such problems, plan effective steps to service recovery and train their gate agents how to display confidence, caring and competence when the algorithm fails to accurately predict the number of no-shows.

Customer service research has found that a customer who has had a problem elegantly corrected ends up more loyal than a customer who has never had a problem.  We also know that when problems occur, the customer’s disappointment needs to be soothed before the problem is corrected.  Great recovery starts with some expression of humility.  A simple “I’m very sorry that happened to you” can communicate caring in a way which can calm even the angriest customer.   When customers experience service problems their attitude is generally: “I don’t care how much you know, until I know how much you care.”  Start with genuine caring.

Customers also need to hear words that let them know you understand how they feel—that you appreciate why they are upset or frustrated.  However, apology and empathy are not enough.  Customers need to experience some urgency—words of momentum—which let are them know you are working to correct their problem as quickly as possible.

But there is one component often missed by many service providers:  the concrete confidence of the frontline ambassador when she or he senses the existence or potential for customer ire.  Too often front line employees move into a defensive, get-ready-for-uproar stance.  Such a ‘tail between the legs” posture only erodes the customer confidence that their encounter will have a satisfactory ending.

I stopped at the Farmview Market in Madison, GA a few miles from my home—they specialize in homegrown produce and products.  Among other things I was in search of a spicy mopping sauce to dilute with jalapeno juice and use as a mop when grilling baby back ribs.  The store owner was on the floor and eager to help.  He recommended Judge Cline’s No. 9 Sauce produced by a sauce maker just a few miles away.  But, his very best selling point was this: “If you don’t love it, I’ll buy it back from you!”  Notice the confidence and passion for the product.  Not, “I’ll refund your money”—an acquiescing, defensive statement.  Not a clichéd, overused “satisfaction guaranteed.”

The manner in which disappointments are handled can have a dramatic impact on the overall perception of your organization or unit.  Look for ways to get continuous customer feedback on service breakdowns.  Keep track of the most common customer complaints of your operation.  Devote time in your next meeting to planning ways to deal with recurring service failures.  But, above all, provide frontline employees the training that gives them the obvious confidence when under fire.

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several national best-selling books.  His newest book is the best-selling Kaleidoscope:  Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles.  He can be reached at chipbell.com.

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