Sucky Service Snowball | Rolling Downhill

6 Ways to Keep The Sucky Service Snowball from Rolling Downhill

It begins innocently enough.

The reservation got messed up. Your agent put down 10 p.m. instead of 10 a.m. It is a minor slip of the keyboard, a single letter. But you are in the airport car rental business. 12 hours is a gulf the size of the ocean.

Fortunately, your confirmation system sends the client an email immediately after the call. In another stroke of luck, the client actually reads the email upon receiving it, notices the error and calls immediately to fix it.

The client is not thrilled. He explains that his flight arrives in the morning, and he has to pick up his most important client soon after. He is reasonable, but also has your agent confirm the reservation time twice before hanging up the phone. “I really need this to be right he said.”

A month goes by and your client receives his 48 hour reminder email. “Dear Mr. Smith, this is just a reminder that your Elite-Club Luxury Sedan will be ready for you at 10 p.m. on January 10. For speediest check-in…” Mr. Smith blows a gasket.

After 10 minutes on hold with your call center, Mr. Smith is even more livid. He explains that this is one of the most important meetings of his career. Your agent assures him that the reservation is correct on the reservation system, and it was just a glitch of the reminder system. The client is not convinced, and Mr. Smith forces the agent to go through every detail.

Sucky Service Snowball | Rental Car LotThe call takes almost 20 minutes before Mr. Smith is comfortable that the reservation is correct.

When Mr. Smith arrives at the airport check-in, the line is stuffed over 9 people deep per agent. One of your agents is late, the other called out, and the playoffs are in town, so you are slammed. It happens, but all Mr. Smith knows is that you seem understaffed.

Finally, Mr. Smith arrives at the counter. The good news: you have Mr. Smith’s reservation for the correct time. The bad news: you are out of the luxury sedans that Mr. Smith went to great pains to make sure you had in the last phone call.

All you have is a bottom-of-the-line subcompact that should have been retired years ago. Mr. Smith is about to pick up a multi-million dollar account in his teenage son’s car.

Mr. Smith goes ballistic. The agent at the desk doesn’t understand why.

Welcome to the sucky service snowball.

Bad Customer Service Accumulates

As the story of Mr. Smith illustrates, bad customer service can behave like a snowball rolling downhill. It starts with a minor mishap, then another, until the accumulation results in a situation that can be impossible to rectify.

Each poor experience we deliver to the customer layers on the previous problems. Larger and larger it grows.

The concept is similar to the idea of brand deposits, where an accumulation of positive experiences creates a positive balance in the “brand account.” Except in reverse.

Each interaction builds up a mass of resentment and disdain, a mass that grows larger now with every interaction with the company that is not perfect.

So, how do we stop the snowball from getting too large?

Stopping the Sucky Service Snowball

To begin, let’s be real. Sometimes you will not be able to stop the snowball, because sometimes “stuff” just keeps happening to the same people. By the time a supervisor or manager who is able to see the entire picture gets involved, it is already too late.Sucky Service Snowball | Rolling Downhill

Oftentimes though, the momentum can be stopped if caught early enough. Here are 6 ways to stop the snowball.

  1. Give Great Reactive Service Every Time. Let the customers know early on that, despite your misstep, you are a customer centric organization. If you have not built up a store of goodwill with the customer, of brand deposits, then you need to WOW the customer when you fix the problem. Customer service is about perspective. Neutral or minor interactions will be viewed through the lens through which your customer views your company.
  2. Flag the Customer Early. Use your CRM system to flag the customer as a VIP or a “Kid Glove Customer.” Whatever phrase you use, make sure this customer gets an extra layer of attention. Typically check reservations for accuracy once? With Mr. Smith, you check twice. And so on.
  3. Share Information Across Silos. Nothing is more frustrating than getting it right in one department and having another department drop the ball because they did not have the relevant information.
  4. Make Sure the Customer Is With the Right Team. Does your customer really need to be taken care of by Operations instead of Technical Support? Should this ticket have been taken over by the server support team three calls ago?
  5. Be Aware of Microinteractions. Jeannie Walters of 360 Connext is the expert in microinteractions, small things such as the wording of a confirmation email or the design on a response form that are often overlooked but can play an integral part in the overall customer experience. Never are these microinteractions more important than when the sucky service snowball is rolling downhill, where each minor irritant can add fuel to an already burning fire. (Yes, I switched metaphors.)
  6. Reset Expectations at Each Touchpoint. The snowball we are trying to prevent from growing is in the mind of the customer. And sometimes, the “sucky service” is not a mistake or a system problem, it is an expectation challenge. Help set realistic expectations early and as often as needed.

And What If That Doesn’t Work?

What should you do if the accumulation of negative experiences has gotten too large? Walk away. Of all the reasons to separate from a customer — customer is too difficult, cannot provide the service the customer is looking for, etc. — walking away from a customer because your organization has continued to screw up is one of the most difficult.

However, even if it’s your fault, it does not mean the relationship can be salvaged. Once the customer passes a certain point of no return, the relationship becomes unviable. You and your organization are a bunch of screw-ups and every minor glitch will only reinforce this belief. Move on. It will be the best thing for everyone involved.

Of course, our goal is to prevent matters from progressing that far. Using identification and early action we can stop sucky service snowballs from becoming too large to handle.


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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