Article | Customer Experience

How to Master Customer Service Recovery

Micah Solomon
G sorry script lettering
G sorry script lettering

Here at Hallmark Business Connections we often talk about the importance of apologizing well. In this guest blog post, Micah Solomon, author and Forbes contributor, gives his point of view on an easy acronym to follow to make apologizing during a service recovery as easy as ARFFD. Happy reading.

Service breakdowns are uncomfortable, and probably the last thing that you want to think about when things are going well. Yet they’re also unavoidable, so we need to think about them, and prepare for their inevitability.

For example, an ice storm forces you to miss a customer’s shipping deadline. A waiter drops a tray in a customer’s lap. [I confess to this one personally, back in my brief and colorful career as a waiter.] A computer system goes down. A critical process isn’t followed that leads to a service failure.

All of this, potentially, is good news. You’ll find an opportunity hidden inside your company’s worst moments: the opportunity to bring a customer closer to you. Indeed, you can learn to handle service breakdowns so masterfully that they actually help you to create loyal customers. Here’s how.

The Four Steps to Great Service Recoveries

Train your employees to respond to each service failure with a specific stepwise sequence:

  1. Apologize, empathize and ask for forgiveness: A real apology, not a fake “I’m sorry if you feel that way.”

  2. Review the complaint with your customer: turn your customers, in other words, into your customer service consultants, letting them explain what’s gone wrong in the customer experience in the customer’s view and what you should do to fix it.

  3. Fix the problem and then follow up: Either fix the issue in the next twenty minutes or follow up within twenty minutes to check on the customer and explain the progress you have made. Follow up after fixing things as well, to show continuing concern and appreciation. (A well-written apology card can work wonders for healing the emotional wound left after a bad experience… even if the situation was resolved well and to the customer’s satisfaction.)

  4. Document the problem in detail and escalate to other departments as needed to allow you to permanently fix the defect by identifying trends and taking action

    [These steps spell “ARFFD” which is kind of fun to say –Ar-Fuh-Fuh-Duh— but is probably not my best attempt at an acronym.  Sorry about that.]

Let’s look at each step of ARFFD in more detail.

Step 1: Apologize, Empathize and Ask for Forgiveness. What’s needed here is a sincere, personal, non-mechanical apology.

There are many creative and sensitive ways to convey that you recognize and regret what your customer has been through. It helps to think through what a customer wants out of an apology? She wants to be listened to, closely. She wants to know you’re genuinely sorry. She wants to know you think she’s right, at least in some sense. She wants to know you are taking her input seriously.

Overall, she wants to feel important to you.

This means that the key to an effective apology, to getting back on the right foot with your customer, is to convey at the outset that you are going to take her side and share her viewpoint.

Step 2: Go Over the Complaint with Your Customer. In Step 1, you’ve begun an alliance with your customer; in Step 2, those collaborative feelings will let you explore what she needs for a good outcome.

Fully exploring the customer’s issue often requires you to ask rudimentary questions—even ones that can feel insulting to a customer, like “Are you sure you typed your password correctly?’’ I refer to these as DYPII (‘‘Did You Plug It In?’’) questions. DYPII questions are likely to get customer hackles up. If you raise DYPII questions before you’ve finished Step 1, they’ll often be considered offensive. But after you’ve developed collaborative feelings in Step 1, the same questions are generally tolerated well.

Just hold off with all the DYPIIness for now. Don’t leap straight into problem solving.

Your customer and you will get there eventually, together.

Step 3: Fix the Problem and Then Follow Up. So you’ve decided to repair the situation That’s a step in the right direction—but it’s only a first step. Remember that the customer feels stressed, inconvenienced, and slowed down by your company. Merely giving her back what she expected to receive initially–before all this trouble–is not going to restore satisfaction.

A key principle in fixing a problem is to resolve the customer’s sense of injustice—of having been wronged or let down. You do this by providing something extra if appropriate for your company

You can find a way to restore the smile to almost any customer’s face, whether it’s a free upgrade or a more creative offering. Collaborate with your wronged customer to figure out what would feel like a valuable resolution, or use your initiative to get going in the right direction.

Ideally, your ‘‘something extra’’ will change the nature of the event for her: your special and creative efforts on her behalf will come to the foreground in the picture of the event she paints for herself and others, online or off, and the initial problem will move to the background.

The Elements of Follow-Up

Various approaches to the follow-up are appropriate in different service settings, but they all should include immediate, internal, and wrap-up components.

Immediate Follow-Up If you’ve handled the problem yourself, check in promptly with the customer after the intended resolution. This underscores your concern. It also lets you catch lingering unresolved issues. Immediate follow-up is also important when you have reassigned the customer’s problem to somebody else. For example: Suppose that you work in customer service. A customer calls you to report being inconvenienced by a glitch on your website. Naturally, you hand off the technical resolution of the problem to your IT department. But will you ever know if IT actually ends up implementing a workable solution for your customer? Whether she ends up feeling taken care of by the technician? You’ll only find out if you check back in.

Internal Follow-up Others in your organization need to be alerted immediately to the service failure a customer experienced. Here’s why such service failure alerts are a hallmark of exceptional businesses:

  • Your staff will know that any further interactions with this customer should be rechecked beyond the usual quality control.

  • Your staff is cued to interact with the customer appropriately after the failure. It is not the customer’s responsibility to explain her troubles once again—unless she wants to. Nor should she be forced to ‘’act happy’’ to match your staff ’s incorrect expectations. They should already be aware of what he’s been through.

  • You can flag the unfortunate customer’s file for special treatment during her next visit or transaction—even if that special treatment is just the ability to return a knowing look or to share a laugh at your own expense.

Wrap-Up: Solidify your relationship with the customer by following up again with a handwritten note or a phone call when the episode is over: ‘‘I’m sorry you experienced this problem. I’m so pleased to have you as a customer, and I am looking forward to working with you again.’’ Doing this by email is all right if you’re solely an online business, but it won’t have the same impact.

Step 4: Document the Problem in Detail. It’s natural to want to give yourself a breather after solving a customer’s problem. Still, make sure your staff is trained to record, every single time, the details of what went wrong—promptly, before the memory can fade or distort. I call this the deposition. Be scrupulous: The only way to prevent serious problems from recurring is to document the problem for careful analysis by those departments who can change the outcome for other customers.

Apologizing well is at the heart of a company who knows nothing will ever be perfect and has the forethought to know that their value system requires them to be prepared. Empowering employees to apologize, empathize and fix problems is the opportunity to turn a bad customer experience into an opportunity to create a customer advocate.