Strategies and Tactics for Successful Service Recovery


It is simply human nature for us to focus on our successes and ignore our failures if possible. We love designing remarkable customer experiences with newer, better and differentiated products and services. When those designs fail to excite customers, it is easier to jump to the next big design than to take a close look at why the previous experience design failed and how to recover from that.

The better approach is to turn a perceived failure into a huge opportunity for improvement and the chance to create a new remarkable experience that generates positive word-of-mouth marketing. This is only possible if sophisticated service recovery programs are in place.

Imagine one of your customers telling a friend or colleague:

“You know, the product (or service) of company XYZ broke down the other day. But when I contacted the company, they did everything possible to solve the problem in a fast and friendly manner and now it is fixed. I understand problems can happen, but I feel that this company is taking care of me.”

Every human or technology driven service or product will eventually fail one day, which puts your customer in a uncomfortable situation. Smart organizations  understand this and develop a service recovery program that ensures their customers are satisfied even after things have gone wrong.

When an organizations plans to implement recovery programs, it is helpful to differentiate between (1) the strategic initiatives that should be in place before the actual problem occurs and (2) the tactical activities that should happen after a problem has occurred and the customer contacted the company.


Strategic Initiatives That Ensure the Right Environment for Remarkable Service Recovery Is in Place

Accept and Anticipate the Need for Recovery

Whenever you roll out a product or service, the people involved with it are already well aware of potential problems or obstacles that will probably occur. Companies that do not anticipate and prepare for potential problems with their product or service are engaging in wishful thinking that limits their ability to respond to their customers. Accepting that even the best designed product or service fails in specific situations is the first step toward recovery capability. Anticipating  potential problems helps organizations prepare for the first customer contacts about a problem.

Build an Organization Fast in Decision Making and Faster to Respond

A key success factor to restoring customer satisfaction is the ability to act fast. While your front-line employees already work hard and fast, the whole organization surrounding service recovery must be designed for agility. This includes clear escalation paths and decision-making processes. The goal is not to redefine new or better escalation processes within the current framework, but to streamline escalation processes even to the point of eliminating them. One way to do this is to empower front-line employees with the knowledge and power to make decisions themselves.

Empowering Front-line Employees

In most companies, the employees that are actually interacting with customers are the ones that receive the lowest salary in an organization. Increasing these salaries may attract and retain talent that delivers exceptional service, but that is not enough. These employees need increased expertise to solve customer problems and the power to do so without involving additional employees if possible. In short, they need the resources and freedom to do whatever is necessary to ensure that customers are satisfied quickly.

Training the Front Line

Ensure that your training program includes not just lessons on delivering service when everything works out as planned. It must also include lessons that teach employees to improvise or to put recovery programs into action if something goes wrong.


iStock_000003009408XSmall While these strategic initiatives are important to the long-term direction of your service recovery programs, the “moment of truth” happens when a customer contacts a company and interacts with an employee to discuss aproblem and possible solutions.



Tactics: Seven Rules for Employees Interacting with Your Customers

1. Acknowledge the problem

Acknowledge that there is a problem. It does not matter whether the customer does not understand certain aspects that are obvious from an organization’s perspective. He or she has a problem, which must be taken seriously. Attempting to convince customers that there is no problem insults their intelligence. Never blame the customer even if it is obvious to you that they are using the product incorrectly.

2. Empathise

Understand the problem from the customer’s point of view and realize that he might feel aggravation after a problem has occurred. While it is not necessary for the employee to submit to abusive language, front-line employees should try to create a supportive, positive atmosphere that proceeds to a solution of the problem. Reflecting the customer’s anger and frustration will not accomplish this, but acknowledging their frustration and remaining positive will.

3. Apologise

Expressing an apology for the problem on behalf of the company is essential. Whether the employee should apologise in his name or in the name of his company depends on the context of the service recovery. If the employee or a direct colleague was involved when the problem occurred, he should apologise for himself. If the employee is in a call-center, and a problem happened at a completely different location in the organization, he should apologise in the name of the organization – anything else will not be perceived by the customer as authentic.

4. Own the problem

Regardless of an employee’s position in the organization, if they are confronted with a customer problem they need to own the solution. This ensures that customers feel they are taken care of. Even if your job is not to resolve the problem ultimately, taking the steps to put them in contact with someone who can resolve the problem sends the message that you care. That message is amplified if you stay informed of the solution, even if you are not directly involved, and confirm with the customer that the problem is solved.

5. Fix the problem

Obviously, fixing or attempting to fix the problem for the customer should be the top priority. In situations where you simply replace or repair a defect, this is relatively easy as compared to situations where a customer is improperly using the product. In the latter case, you must re-educate the customer in proper usage without shifting blame to them.

6. Provide assurance

When customers get in touch with you to report a problem and to demand a fix, their most important need is to be taken seriously. Giving them a feeling of assurance that the problem will be sorted out and should not occur again imparts an impression of  professionalism rebuilds the customer’s confidence in your company’s products and services.

7. Provide compensation

If you want to make angry customers happy, give them money. Providing a refund, token or other compensation depending on the severity of the problem remains  a powerful method for service recovery. Increasing the amount of money that a company pays to another company to fix problems requires rigorous control but it can ensure that your customers are satisfied. Be careful not to over-apply this rule. Just handing out money as a first recourse may not actually solve anything for the customer. The problem he or she was trying to solve with your product remains. Even worse, if the “payoff” was disbursed in an unfriendly manner or before an honest attempt to solve the original problem, customer satisfaction will not be restored.


Hart, C.W.L.; Heskett, J.L.; Sasser, W.E.: The profitable act of service recovery. Harvard Business Review 68 (4), 1990, pp, 148–156

Johnston, R.; Michel, S.: Three outcomes of service recovery: Customer recovery, process recovery and employee recovery, International Journal of Operations & Production Management 28 (4), 2008, pp. 79 – 99


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