Saturday, September 10, 2011

Absolutely Positively Apologetic!

Yesterday morning, the call came to my daughter.
It was a very gracious woman calling from FedEx in Texas.
She was genuinely sorry about the service failure. FedEx had called the shipper in North Carolina and refunded the shipping cost.
She sounded genuinely thoughtful and truly helpful.
So, hat's off to FedEx for doing the right thing.

That said, the whole episode, with its emotional ups and downs, feelings of helplessness in the face of a system that didn't seem capable of responding in a timely and effective fashion, took me back to the notion of service recovery.
I remember reading Chris Hart's article on service guarantees years ago when I was at HBR, and being impressed with how much sense it made: Everybody makes mistakes; the question is, what do you do about them when they happen? Hart argued that the more a company issues service guarantees against failure, the more likely it is to design a system that won't fail--and to design in recovery systems to deal with the times when something does go wrong.
It was the kind of management article that appealed to me as a manager and as a consumer--and the message has stuck with me for a long time.

But this last FedEx experience made me think a little deeper.
It isn't enough to think about having guarantees and recovery systems. You have to design them into your way of doing business.
For instance: one of the applied lessons from the FedEx experience with my daughter's missing shipment was this: Most companies design their systems to run one direction only--from front to back. But if you want to create the capacity for real service recovery, you need to design a system that it will also run from back to front--you need to be, in effect, to play the tape in reverse, so you can find what went wrong quickly and accurately, so you can then intervene to fix it.

The same thing could be said about the idea of a Customer Advocate Team.
The name sounds great. What customer wouldn't want an internal advocate when things go wrong?
But the real operational question is, what power and what authority does the Customer Advocate Team have?
Can they actually function as advocates for the customer? Or are they limited to sounding and acting like apologists for the company?
If the only authority the team has is to explain to an unhappy customer what the company's policies are, then they don't qualify as advocates. (It was the always spot-on Seth Godin who pointed out some time ago that falling back on the answer that "that is our policy" is about the lamest answer a company can give a customer; in that case, the customer is entitled to say, "I have policies, too, and one of mine is not to pay companies whose policies are idiotic!")
So if you have a company, and you want to set up a team whose members are customer advocates, what real authority do you give them?
Can they unilaterally intercede on the customer's behalf?
Refund money on the spot?
Get a supervisor to over-ride a bad decision or an ineffective business activity?
Dispatch someone to find a missing item, track down a lost package, investigate a messed up situation--in real time?

I do appreciate FedEx calling my daughter to make things right--that was the right thing to do.
Even more, I think about all the ways companies and organizations make mistakes all the time (I just got back from a restaurant experience where they never wrote down the reservation that we'd called to make--and left us cooling our heels on a sofa for 30 minutes while a table opened up--with no offer of anything "on the house" to make up for their bad booking work. As Chris Hart sagely said years ago, mistakes are part of doing business; the question customers want to know is, what do you do next?)
And I've come to appreciate pushing deeper into this very serious issue: how do you design a system to be reversible; and how do you give real authority to your service recovery team so they can actually make a real difference?
Questions that ultimately spell the difference between good-enough customer service (barely good enough) or out-of-this-world customer service.
For me, I have to say, my biggest thanks to FedEx is for a real learning experience.

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