Delivering exceptional customer service, when things go wrong

We all know that ‘customer experience’ is something companies are frantically trying to get right. Whether it’s through digital innovation, social media or call centres, the investments being made in customer experience strategy, technology and operating model change is significant and the reprioritisation of this as an objective and measure of success has evolved dramatically in recent years.

As a Customer Experience Management Consultant, I work with clients to help them get this right, so naturally I’m always analysing and evaluating my own experiences as a ‘prosumer’ and actively share feedback on customer experiences with businesses either face-to-face or online.

Why so many companies get it wrong

With so much transparency, awareness and scrutiny of customer experiences through social channels and consumer-to-consumer (C2C) conversations, there’s so many potential customer pain points and room for companies to make mistakes.

Despite this immense focus on customer experience, companies still struggle to get it right and to do a really great job. It’s even more crucial when something has gone wrong and the true test is how the company handles these situations to resolution and satisfaction.

Usually, the propensity to fail here is down to factors like poor attention to detail, lack of autonomy in frontline customer service teams, non-customer centric processes or weak customer service strategy as a culture in companies. These common blockers let down the handling of customer complaints and result in long, drawn out and frustrating customer experiences with poor or unsatisfactory outcomes.

Companies should be worried that 91% of unhappy customers who are non-complainers simply leave a brand, so it’s absolutely imperative that they get the end–to-end experience, right first time, all the time.

Whyte and Brown takes the crown 

It’s not common practice for businesses just yet but it’s fantastic to discover and experience companies who are achieving this ‘art’ and share these best practice principles.

In a recent visit to an unsuspecting free range chicken restaurant, buried in the heart of Carnaby Market, central London, I experienced something spectacular. Not just great customer service, but care, compassion and a seamless experience to remember when something went wrong.

Whyte & Brown prides itself on serving ‘fabulous free range chicken’ but this wasn’t the case for myself and friend when we sat down to order our main courses.

We’d had exceptional starters and were even recommended a good bottle of wine so it was shocking and disappointing to be presented with a chicken dish that was undercooked and pink in the middle. We alerted our waiter immediately who said sorry straight away, took the plate back and reassured us that the kitchen would cook another fresh and properly.

Overcoming blockers

Lots of companies fall at this first hurdle, setting a precedent for the rest of the experience. Not acknowledging, accepting or saying sorry for an issue and instead, challenging it to avoid responsibility, happens too often.

This is an example of weak customer service strategy and poor effort to embed a simple principle of ‘saying sorry’ as part of all complaint handling cases. For customers,  it’s not about assigning blame, but instead about finding a resolution to what has happened and companies need to be ‘doing the right thing’ for the customer.

We soon received a fresh, perfectly cooked chicken main and happily finished our meal in peace. At this point, in my mind, I was preparing to have a conversation about the issue we’d experienced then negotiate a reduction in the bill.

In the worst case scenario, I was ready to argue the point with the waiter to reach a resolution. Companies need to be more proactive in offering resolutions and getting it right first time, rather than putting the customer through laborious discussion and explanation cycles during and after the experience to get there in the end anyway.

To my surprise and delight, the waiter that had looked after us during the meal came over to our table, kneeled down beside us and explained how sorry he was that we experienced a problem with our food.

He was genuine and meaningful in his apology and it was clear he didn’t take the error lightly. This understanding and conversation is a foundation for companies to help customers understand their point of view and how they intend to deal with the complaint.

As a gesture of goodwill, he offered desserts on the house which we happily accepted and removed the undercooked chicken dish from the bill. If this company hadn’t been so quick thinking and proactive, these were both things that I would have challenged as good will gestures anyway. Getting to this point without an argument or taking more time out of my experience to drive this outcome was so refreshing.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

You might be wondering why I’m suggesting this was such a great customer experience. Each of these components on their own is good, standard and expected in customer service, right?

But in reality, they’re not as common and best practice as people think. They tend to feature in isolation and provides customers with a little taste of what good looks like and perhaps make companies feel like they’re giving a good level of customer service but on their own, it’s just not enough.

Surprisingly, one of the hardest things for companies to do firstly and consistently is say sorry, when things go wrong. When you piece this, and all of these acts and gestures together then look at the single end to end experience, these simple principles of saying sorry, being proactive, offering good will and genuine conversation weave together to make a fantastic customer experience.

A human touch

The element of the human contribution that brings the strategy and technology to life combines to create a culture that should to be consistent and embedded into the business and its values. This is easier for smaller organisations where embedding in is easier to achieve but a greater challenge for big corporates.

The key focus area for larger organisations is in the customer service hub (which is usually a contact centre), where investment in strategy, collaboration with frontline teams, and autonomy to handle customer service issues without the need for laborious escalations and long SLAs, make for a phenomenal customer experience.

It’s important for customer service functions of any size to invest in technology that provides the customer with a better experience but ultimately its people who drive this technology and get the best from it. There’s little value in having expensive systems and tech when processes are laden with hierarchy and non-customer centric outcomes. It’s a classic ‘computer says no’ analogy.

Customer-centric thinking and culture accompanies technology and it’s something that companies need to remember, and unfortunately, it’s commonly overlooked. Technology makes things easier but culture and customer centricity will always take first place – it’s this that turned what could have been a nightmare dining experience, into something personal and unforgettable.