How to Recover When You Fail a Client

Yes, we all work for organizations, yet in another part of our lives we’re customers and clients — of banks, restaurants, retailers and other businesses.

Putting on my client hat, I’m going to share with you an experience I recently had at a restaurant. After reviewing this experience, I’ll tie the story back to an often-ignored but critical business skill: recovering when we fail a client.

Recently, a friend and I visited a new neighborhood restaurant. It only had been open a couple of weeks, so the two of us really didn't know what to expect. The place looked nice and our server was friendly. I ordered their recommended burger, yet when I took the first bite I quickly noticed it was cold inside and obviously under-cooked. I told the server, she apologized and took the burger back to the kitchen. Within a minute, the cook came to our table, apologized and said he was cooking a new burger for me and there would be no charge. In a short while, the server returned with a new burger, and in one bite I found it to be delicious.

As we were nearing the end of the meal, the cook returned to see how I liked the new burger. I said it was excellent, and he asked both me and my friend what we would like for dessert, indicating that there would be no charge for this extra. When she delivered the check, the server again apologized, and I noticed there was no charge on the check for my burger or our two desserts.

What can we learn from this real-life experience? The new restaurant turned what could have been a very upset customer into a delighted customer by changing a bad situation into a positive situation. We know from lots of studies and experiences that a dissatisfied customer is far less likely to return to a business. Further, she or he is likely to tell anywhere from 10 to 20 people about their bad experience, plus potentially share the irritation through social media to thousands.

Didn’t the restaurant lose money on me? Perhaps it did, but since my first visit I’ve returned three more times and brought new customers with me. And, I’ve told many others about my experience and recommended they try the new restaurant.

So what does the example have to do with your work? Like this restaurant, you’re likely in a business whose success depends on the service you provide. Customers come to you, stay with you and recommend you to others based upon the service you provide them. Oh, sure, price is important. Yet customers won’t stay with you if your prices are great but your service is lousy!

Beyond this obvious point, the example illustrates several guidelines for service-failure recovery:

  • Recover quickly. When we disappoint customers, even if unintentionally, it’s a big deal to them. To keep their loyalty and prevent them from bad-mouthing us, we need to move swiftly to correct the problem. 
  • Establish two-way communications with customers. When a failure occurs, it is often because of a communications breakdown. Reaching out to customers, carefully listening to their concerns and avoiding being defensive all will help in correcting what went wrong. 
  • Look inside your company to see if process changes are needed. When we disappoint a customer, it might be because your way of doing business needs to be examined and potentially changed. A failure with one customer may help you make adjustments internally so you don’t fail this customer again or upset other customers because of a faulty process.

Virtually all businesses want to please their customers. When service foul-ups occur, we need to recognize that these failures are huge for our customers. Carefully listening to the customer’s concerns and recovering quickly will help lessen the damage and provide a foundation for restoring the customer’s trust.

By Stephen Brown