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Responding To Customer Experience Disasters!

by David Brock on January 5th, 2015

As much as we try to develop, implement, and execute outstanding customer experiences, sometimes things fall apart and we have a complete disaster.  Everything goes wrong!

We all fail.  We make mistakes, sometimes we just do the wrong things, sometimes it’s error.  In larger organizations, senior executives have to trust that everyone in the organization is executing–but sometimes, despite everything that’s done, it someone in the organization makes a mistake.  Maybe they don’t know how to do something, maybe they don’t care, but people will make mistakes and fail.

How we respond to these customer service and experience disasters is critical.  It separates great companies from the mediocre.

Over the New Year Holidays, I experienced a terrible–almost tragic performance failure.

My 90 year old father had been hospitalized just before the New Year.  He was being released New Year’s Eve, but the hospital, my mother, and all of us were terribly worried about the potential of falling and hurting himself even more.  The hospital arranged to have a $50 walker delivered to my Dad’s home–ready to be there for his arrival.

You can guess, it wasn’t there.

My mother calls the company, they guarantee another time.  Yes, you guessed it, they missed it.

And they missed the time later that night.

By this time, all of us were very concerned.  My Mom had to help lift and support my Dad just to go to the bathroom (don’t want to embarrass Dad, but we all have to take a leak every once in a while).  I was fearful for both my Mom and Dad.  She’s advancing in years, herself and is very petite.  I was worried about she hurting herself and my Dad being hurt.

On New Year’s Day, we still had the problem.  Mom called the company, they said, “We can’t get to you for 48 hours,” despite my Mom explaining the severity of the situation.

I called the hospital, suggesting he be readmitted or trying to find another solution.  Like me, they were alarmed as well.  They sprang into action, contacted the company, and were told something would be delivered in the early afternoon.

Yes, you guessed it, they missed that, as well as two other appointments later that day.

We found another solution, but then my Mom was surprised, late Friday afternoon to find a walker sitting outside the front door of their home.  It had been delivered Friday afternoon.

So we experienced a massive customer service failure.  The hospital did everything they could, the company made and missed commitment after commitment, even though they knew the urgency of the situation and potential danger and risk to my parents.  It appeared they didn’t care.

So now you know the background.  A real customer service/experience disaster–one both I and my family took very personally–after all my parents were at risk.

The people my parents were dealing with worked in a location of a very large, national company.  In my inimitable way, I emailed one of the top executives.  There was nothing the company could do to “fix” the situation, we had already fixed it.  I just wanted to politely make the executive aware of the massive performance failure and it’s potential impact.

Again, think of it, it’s only a $50 walker–in a multibillion revenue stream.  I wondered if they would care.

Here’s where greatness comes in.  Within 15 minutes of sending an email, I get a response from the executive.  He offered no excuses, just a simple apology.  More importantly, he said, “I have asked the SVP of the Area to investigate this.  While I know an apology can do nothing, I’d like to let you know the results of the investigation and what we intend to do to make sure it doesn’t recur.”

To be honest, I was surprised.  Both at the speed of the response, and at the personal ownership, accountability, and action this very senior level executive took.

I’m still angry about the risk to my parents.  There is nothing anyone can do to reduce that.

But I feel that we’ve not only been heard, but people care.  I don’t know the outcome of the investigation, I don’t know the actions that will be taken.  But this executive did the very best he possibly could have done–short of avoiding the problem in the first place.

None of us is perfect.  Each of us makes mistakes.  Despite the best systems, processes, tools, and controls, our people will make mistakes.

What we do to recognize and respond to these mistakes is what makes all the difference!  It’s what sets people truly committed to creating great customer experiences apart from everyone else.

As a personal note to the executive, Thank You!

(PS, my Dad and Mom are doing fine.)

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  1. What a story, thanks for sharing Dave!

    My parents live in a similar situation and yes, we experienced similar situations with people and companies that just didn’t care. The impact of a service disaster for a customer as your dad in this situation cannot be mapped to a revenue stream from an ethical perspective. It’s just not relevant, because it can always impact his health tremendously!

    It’s a positive signal that these senior level executive did what was the best to do in this disaster – investigating and taking action that it doesn’t happen again.
    Completely agree; it all comes down to how we respond to distasters like this one – from both sides!

    • Thanks for the comment Tamara–I remember you and I talking about your situation not long ago.

      You raise an interesting issue, I may disagree a little bit. Is it an ethical issue because we are speaking of someone who is dear to us health? But what if we have a performance failure that causes a person–a customer to miss a commitment to their customers? What if it causes them to fail to meet their goals and the expectations of their management? What if it causes them to lose their jobs? Is that an ethical issue, as well?

      I think the great lesson is not really an ethical lesson, but when we think about the customer experience, we really have to put ourselves in the customer shoes to understand what our performance means to them. Our customers put their trust in us, some times it’s life and death (not in the case of my father by the way). In some cases it’s meeting their goals, enabling them to perform and keep their jobs. In some cases, it’s just making their lives easier. But we can’t understand customer experience until we understand what it means to them.

      • Thanks for your quick response and for already writing another post on that, Dave 🙂

        I raised the ethical perspective in this particular case because it was in the healthcare industry. The impact of a service disaster in this industry cannot be completely measured in financials, as it can impact a person’s life or death.

        If we replace ethic with compassion, I think, we come closer to what I mean and what you probably mean. With compassion in a business context I mean the simple idea not to treat a customer (or any other person) any different than I want to be treated by my ethical standards – yes, they are pretty high 😉 This is why I have quite a practice in forgiveness…

        In general it means what you reflected in your follow-up post – we can only understand the real impact for a customers if we know what this specific service means to them.
        Amen to that!
        For a person living alone in a wheel chair,a phone means everything to be connected to the outer world. For us, probably dealing with different phones and devices, the meaning is different.

        As we all don’t live up to our ambitions every day, service problems occur. The more closely an organization is embedded in the whole B2B2C value chain, the higher the levels of service commitment. That was at least my experience in the automotive supplier industry. Everybody along the supply chain was aware what the financial impact of every minute at the OEM assembly line would mean in numbers, if a certain shipment failed.
        Of course, it doesn’t mean that problems never occured. But the way how people dealt with when it happened was always very different from other industries without such a close connection to the end customer.

        Thanks for jumping on the topic!

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