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Re-Engaging the Disenchanted Customer: The Art of Service Recovery

Written By Anna Sullins


The Art of Customer Service

There are a few critical touch-points in the customer relationship cycle that make or break the customer experience. The first is the initial impression your brand makes on a potential customer, but even more importantly is what could be the last touch-point with your customer. That is, of course, the moment when you make a mistake. Mistakes are inevitable, yet companies have an immense opportunity to use service recovery to create loyalty to their brand.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the Service Recovery Paradox, which states that a customer who experiences excellent service recovery will be more loyal to a brand than had an issue never arisen in the first place. Re-engaging the disenchanted customer through your service blunders can be a very effective tool if used properly, and through our work with companies across the country, we have found that the most successful organizations employ these steps in the service recovery process:

Believe the Legitimacy of the Complaint

If you want customers to feel understood, train employees to believe them. Service recovery begins with a foundation of mutual trust that you can only gain when employees recognize customer complaints are legitimate. It is not enough for the employee to have a pre-established solution to the problem, rather the customer needs to know they will be heard and believed.

Leaders must train their staff to believe the best about the customer, recognizing that this individual truly feels like something is amiss – not that their intent is to take advantage of the company or just score a free ride.  Your front line staff has a better chance for a positive outcome if they focus on moving proactively toward the customer, rather than away from the recovery situation.  Avoiding the scene or passing off the complaint to someone else is an instinctive response; however, we have seen that when the situation is reappraised as an opportunity, rather than a threat, front line team members can solve issues quickly.  Labeling such an event as a customer service opportunity will open your employee’s ears to truly listen to the customer’s concern with all five senses.

Listen to the Customer

Listening is not always easy, especially when a customer is emotional.  An employee who stays calm, however, can have a soothing effect on the complaining customer and can lessen the tension of the conversation. These practices are supported by recent studies in neuroscience, where it has been shown that the reappraisal of a situation can lessen the intensity of one’s emotions. In a service recovery situation, an employee’s calm, silent, response to a highly emotional customer complaint can tame the emotions of the situation and result in a positive outcome for both parties.

It takes more than surface listening to accomplish this.  To master excellence in customer service, the care you express must be sincere and authentic.  Eye contact, a genuine look of concern, and resisting the temptation to interrupt are all key elements of sincere listening.  This can be difficult when you disagree with the customer, but in this case, perception is reality. Proactive listening does not mean you must agree with them, but you are making the effort to empathically hear them out. 

Apologize Sincerely

Proactive listening should be followed by a sincere apology. Ann Ashley, Biltmore’s Vice President of Talent & Organizational Development put it this way:

“A sincere apology goes a long way. We apologize to the customer by first thanking them for bringing the issue to our attention, saying something like, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention.  I am very sorry this happened.  We certainly did not mean to inconvenience you this way.”  Apologizing for something that one does not truly feel sorry for can be difficult, but we remind our staff each day that the reason we are employed is because our guests chose Biltmore out of millions of attractions they could have selected. Our highest goal is their happiness.”

Authentic apologies take practice and effort, and a genuine apology never contains the words “if” or “but.” For example, leaders should never say, “I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings,” or “I apologize for being insensitive, but such-and-such happened earlier …” Those words have the effect of rescinding the apology by either calling the injury into doubt or assigning true responsibility elsewhere. Sincere apologies are even appropriate in service recovery scenarios caused by external factors.

One harsh winter evening in late December, the Inn on Biltmore Estate faced a crisis. Guests planning on arriving in the evening were caught in a severe snowstorm on the interstate and were obliged to cancel their reservations. The stormy weather had also brought down a sizeable tree across the entrance to the estate, and while maintenance crews rushed to aid the problem, staff at the Inn hurried to find a solution for guests waiting at the entrance. In the midst of the ice and sleet, bellmen and valet resolved to drive out an alternate entrance to Biltmore Estate to meet guests at the entrance, apologizing for the inconvenience, and guiding cars safely to the Inn via backroads.

When a problem exists, the best companies realize that anyone can go through the motions of a service recovery, but without a sincere apology, no matter the situation or who is at fault, the solution will not be satisfactory.

Solve the Issue at Hand

Effectively solving customer concerns requires personalized service. In other words, your employees should be encouraged to connect with the customer as an individual deserving genuine care, rather than another person to walk through systematic service recovery procedures. By empowering employees to invent creative solutions, you will reap guests who are more loyal and employees who are dynamically engaged. 

Consider this: Where are some opportunities for you to integrate sincere apologies into your service recovery process?

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Anna Sullins is Biltmore's Manager of Training & Development, overseeing the learning and career-pathing of Biltmore's 2,400 employees.