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Targeting Your Service Recovery to Avoid the “Hail Mary”

Jim Tincher Jim Tincher 02/20/2012

Last week I visited a company in St. Louis who put me up in a Hampton Inn. Hampton Inn isn’t at the top of my hotel list, but it isn’t on the bottom, either. It’s a fine hotel, with a hot tub mercifully free of screaming kids. But as I was getting ready for the day I found my hot water disappearing, and had to shave without any hot water at all.

I was mildly annoyed, but that was all. As I stopped by the front desk for another purpose, I waited (and waited!) for the manager who was on the phone. Finally, I gave up and sought out another staff member, asked my question, and casually asked whether they knew they were out of hot water. In my mind, the conversation was over. No big deal.

I was running late, so sat down for a quick breakfast. The manager then sought me out, apologized for being on the phone, then quickly mentioned they were comping my room, saying “We want you to come back here.”

Great service recovery, you might think. But was it?

Service Recovery is Crucial

Few activities impact a hotel (or indeed, any service company) more than service recovery. Beldona’s and Prasad’s study of hotels in Orlando found that poor service recovery was actually more damaging than having no service recovery at all.

In the seminal work on service recovery, J.S. Adams proposed that the requirement of service recovery is to restore the balance between customer inputs (time, money, etc.) and outputs. Your job as a customer service leader is to ensure that your resolution restores that balance without giving away the farm. Let’s look my experience in more detail.

Multiple staff members milled around as I waited, but nobody stopped to help. That would obviously never happen at a Ritz, but it also would never happen at a Chick-fil-A. The best service recovery plan is to avoid the need for recovery. Any of the chatting staff members could have answered my question (“Do you sell postcards?”). This waiting around actually bothered me the most – and is cheaper to fix than the hot water issue!

So, issue avoidance is great.  But what about his offer of the free room as a recovery method?

Free rooms are the “Hail Mary”s of customer service – the option to be reserved for when you have no other choice. Using Adam’s restoration argument, it should be reserved for situations where the entire stay was ruined – hardly appropriate to my situation. In fact, I even raised an objection to the free room! I wasn’t paying, and it felt like a waste. He gave up $150 in profit, and I gained nothing – not exactly the way to restore balance.

So, what should he have done?  My take:

  1. Acknowledged the issue by broadening his apology to include both the wait and the lack of hot water.
  2. Investigated the current situation by asking if I was able to get ready okay.  This is critical to appropriately targeting the service recovery by understanding my current situation.
  3. Given me the opportunity to vent. Impacted customers first want to be heard. By preemptively providing the comped room before voiced my frustration, he actually increased my annoyance! As a colleague said when discussing service recovery, “First, I have to let my customer threaten to fire me. Only then can we have a productive conversation.” Letting a customer vent is a critical (and free!) step in service recovery.

These steps provide the manager with the opportunity to investigate an appropriate resolution. There were many options available short of the comped room, including:

  • First, was compensation even needed? Just feeling heard is a powerful reward, and in my case would have been sufficient.
  • Reward points are a better option than a comped room, especially when I am not paying the bill (which is likely true of most of his business travelers). Even 1000 points (1/10 of a room) would be a delight, and cost much less.
  • Even better: ask how to make up for the inconvenience. Offering to get me a coffee to go (since I wasted time in line, and was obviously rushed) would have perfectly restored the balance – and cost him nothing but 3 minutes of time.

His investigation would have let him know which of these to use, before resorting to the Hail Mary of the comped room. As it is, he lost $150 in profit, and I’m so annoyed that I am blogging about it.

Takeaway: Do your service recovery processes uniquely reflect your customer needs? Or are you just throwing margin at the problem, hoping the customer issue just goes away?

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