By Steven J. Slater

Excerpts from The Master, A Service Designers Handbook (advanced edition).

Service providers who resolve user complaints quickly and satisfactorily are likely to build loyalists, some say—but others disagree and caution that it depends greatly on the situation. In other words, don’t mess up a service just to try and recover to create loyalists.

It should be made clear that service failures are inevitable. But should service providers expend resources on service recovery just because a user is dissatisfied with their experience?  If so, are all failures worthy of recovery, regardless who’s to blame: the service provider, bad luck and timing, or the users’ fault?  And, if the point of service recovery is to rectify a user experience, what measures are sufficient for recovery? (Both the user and the service provider must share a mutually satisfying outcome—a win-win.)

The whole notion of service recovery revolves around a delicate balance of: “well this occurred; ah, but what about these factors?”

The balance begins with understanding that ‘customer service’ and ‘customer experience’ are not the same, but they are not exactly mutually exclusive, either.  Customer service is defined as a singular human interaction, and customer experience refers to a users’ entire service journey. Employees can be held responsible for poor customer service, but not necessarily when it comes to a service journey.

Walter Brosch, Director of Operations of TMH Hotels Corporation, a service recovery advocate, has said: “It is imperative that those of us in the hospitality industry through training and execution, create a guest environment with minimal problems. However, it is not always the problem that causes disloyalty with our customers, but the matter in which the resolution is handled.”

But some researchers say not all failed outcomes can be recovered.  In a 2000 study of students, each were given bad haircuts and not one of them said that experience was recoverable. Users tend to make quick deductions of who’s to blame when they are unsatisfied, even though the reason may not be known, according to some experts. Customers at a grocery store might forgive unexpected long lines at checkout due to a surge, but will quickly assume it’s the store’s fault if just one checkout lane is open.

See!  It depends.

Yet many advocates for service recovery, indicative in the words of Brosch, hang onto what’s called the service recovery paradox: that when a service experience goes south, recovery intervention will generate loyalists.  There’s even a widely-circulated chart purported to depict what happens as a result of recover.

A number of researchers have offered several theories for the service recovery paradox:

Theory 1:  Customer satisfaction is based on comparing the outcome with their expectations.  Given that difficulties always will occur, and the user has a pre-disposed expectation of an outcome, they also have an expectation of a service recovery.  Therefore, if the service recovery fails to meet the user’s expectation, the attempt at recovery will fail.

Theory 2:  Users’ expectations are shaped by prior, similar performing services.  In those instances, the only satisfactory recovery must involve human intervention versus automation, academics conclude.

Theory 3:  Users enter a service with various levels of trust, often based on an image of the service provider. The higher degree of trust, the greater likelihood a user will be receptive to service recovery attempts.  Therefore, users encountering a service with no history with the service provider are less likely to be satisfied with service recovery methods.

Other theories and findings by academic researchers include:

  • Users places more much more weight on losses than on gains.  Therefore, users are not likely to be satisfied with redress unless the value exceeds the initial benefit from the service outcome.
  • Surveys are largely ineffective tools for probing users about service failure and recovery.  Users will rarely balance their comments between positives and negatives, and likely to focus on negativity. Moreover, they often fail to remember critical details.

In the face of these findings, how should service providers proceed?

Some organizations automate responses and provide ways to contact a customer representative.  A customer representative might satisfy users whose dissatisfaction falls outside criteria mapped from the researchers’ findings above.

Before committing to a more robust service recovery program, service providers should gather insights around the types of user failures occurring. This requires documenting each instance of user dissatisfaction.  Providers need to assign the responsibility to staff, and require them to document the situation, best practice involves devising a template to be filled out. The template needs to force out specific details aligned to a users’ journey. The reports need be filled out within 24 hours of the occurrence, a best practice in order to recreate the most accurate account.  Incidents not requiring immediate intervention should be part of a monthly (or more frequent) review to analyze patterns or trends that might require fixes.

Then ideas here are based, in part, on scholarly thoughts, writings and findings contained in The service recovery paradox: justifiable theory or smoldering myth? Magnini, V.; Ford, J.; Markowski, E.; and, Honeycutt Jr., E. Marketing Journal Services. May 2017.

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