6 Ways to Keep The Sucky Service Snowball from Rolling Downhill

April 25, 2013

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.

The 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

Sucky Service Snowball | Rolling Downhill

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.

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.

6 thoughts on “6 Ways to Keep The Sucky Service Snowball from Rolling Downhill”

  1. Ah yes, I know it well and have been fired because we just couldn’t seem to take care of the little things and the same errors kept occurring. The customer is probably thinking if they can’t even resolve this little issue, what are they going to do when I really need them. As the captain of the team it is ultimately my responsibility, but sometimes you have to have faith in your people to take care of it the way it is supposed to be done. We all know we don’t live in a perfect world and ‘stuff’ happens.

    I had a good Lowe’s story however. I had them match up paint to an old can of Sherwin Williams paint we had for our exterior wall. I made the mistake of using up the old can first before buying the new. Well, of course it didn’t match and it specifically says on the can this is a special order and we will NOT take it back. I was just trying to see if they could blend it a little differently. At first he said NO to taking it back and blending, but I remained calm and said I could really use some help so he blended me a new can. It didn’t match either so I had to paint the whole wall over again, but I did appreciate him going over and above to help me out.

    1. These situations can be very challenging because often, by the time it gets to you, the situation has gone so far that it is beyond repair. Like you say, take responsibility and do your best to turn the situation around.

      That is a good story… except for the part where you had to repaint your wall. 🙂

  2. Engaging post!

    I think the lynchpin here is a 3/4 combo. What I mean is, “nobody” shares across silos and rarely will a customer be with the right department- but I’m not convinced that should ultimately matter: “Ummmm, this is customer service, you need to talk to reservations. I’m gunna transfer you OK? … No, this is individual reservations, you need to talk to enterprise accounts since you’re a business customer and they’re closed for the day.” Does that SOUND FAMILIAR? It’s maddening!

    More to the point, I’ve heard of a few companies that have created “swat teams” of sorts that take over/assume snowballing situations to see them through to the end of their experience. Of course the right team should handle the right customers. Information should be shared. Business should be social. Everything’s integrated… until then, “the swat” idea can be effective as concierge-level support for customers that are a quarter of the way to a sucky snowball disaster. I’ve used them successfully in politics. And if they can work in politics, c’mon!

    1. Love the “swat team” idea. You’re right, sharing across silos will always be an issue. With good leadership it can be improved, but it will always be an organizational challenge. In addition, specialization dictates that departments will always exists, and these will naturally form into silos.

      So, the swat team idea is pretty intriguing — a team that has the authority and skill set to work across departments to help guide the customer to a successful experience.

      Thanks for sharing Ryan!

  3. An impressive share! You’ve made some decent points there. as a limo manager in boston I would say that the limo provider MUST have a highly skilled dispatchers as well as drivers. and of course clean cars.

  4. Pingback: 207: (Tip) How to Turn Away Customers

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