Exhausted and disappointed…and a bit baffled. That’s how I felt when I walked out of a trendy Indianapolis-area hotel last Sunday. I’d had maybe three hours of sleep and was facing a five hour drive home, which was plenty of time to reflect on my experience and how it could have gone better.

The hotel had lived up to its online image, looking very much like a Restoration Hardware catalog come to life, so we were pleased when we checked in just before Midnight. Long story short, by 4:00 a.m., I’d had multiple direct chats with rowdy hall-partiers, called the front desk twice, and not yet slept. When I checked out in the morning and recounted my experience to the guest services manager, he responded without averting his gaze from his computer screen, saying

“Well, I wasn’t here last night, so…”

What did I want him to do?

All too often, customers complain in an attempt at recompense, hoping for some form of compensation for their pain and suffering, so it stands to reason many employees would assume that is the end-game of any disgruntled customer. When an employee is not able or empowered to provide relief, he or she might feel powerless to offer anything other than an apology. But who walks away satisfied after receiving a tepid apology (or worse, a lethargic blame-dodge)?

Think of it from the perspective of a personal relationship; someone you know does you wrong and you decide to talk to them about it directly. Do you expect that person to pull out his wallet and offer you $50 for your suffering? Or did you hope that person would make a sincere commitment to avoid repeating the behavior, and then hold true to that promise? If an apology is the end of the interaction, with no commitment to improvement, why would I risk interacting with you again? Fool me twice, shame on me.

Translating that to business, customers with no emotional engagement with your brand have even less motivation to return. If they see your house is on fire, why would they run in? If you are not providing multiple channels by which employees can share customer feedback with appropriate leadership, if you aren’t taking that customer feedback and using it to improve operations and related processes, if you are not creating a culture of active improvement over apologies, your house is on fire and you’re letting it burn while you keep busy doing other things. If you are constantly offering refunds, price adjustments, or other forms of compensation to angry customers, your house is on fire and you just threw your wallet in for good measure.

Fire Proofing

Here are some steps that can help you move from house-fire to hero.

  1. Man the sirens. Establish communication channels for employees to relay customer feedback. Make it easy for your employees to capture feedback through sound files or quick transcription so they can relay it appropriately. Make it easy for your employees to do that. Email, a central listening post, an application made available at point of sale; find a solution that works for your business and your employees.
  2. Train your firefighters. Establish triage processes. Empower employees to resolve the immediate issue with the customer. Emphasize that customer feedback should be shared through the established communication channels. Enable employees to make a commitment to action, rather than an apology statement.
  3. Conduct the arson investigation. You’re receiving customer and employee feedback. Read it. Listen to it. Think about it. Make it a discipline to review customer feedback as frequently as possible.
  4. Identify the source of the fire. Think systems, not isolated interactions. The fire has already been put out. Now it’s time to think about the underlying systems, resources, and processes at play in creating that fire in the first place.
  5. Make your customer experiences fire-proof. Once you ascertain the root cause and impacted elements, follow through. Address what is broken, improve what can be improved, practice the discipline of keeping the commitment made to the customer.

If your brand promise does not involve repeatedly burning your customers, maybe give this approach a try. Reflecting on my own experience, had the guest services manager looked me in the eye, thanked me for voicing my experience, and expressed his commitment to sharing that feedback with his leadership so they could find better solutions going forward, I would have walked away smiling.

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