How to pick up the pieces when things go wrong in business

Terry’s attitude sums up what the very best service professionals know. It’s not about how you got into the crocodiles mouth that’s important, it’s more about how you’re going to get out of it.

Every business large or small will get it wrong. It doesn’t matter who you are; however big or small, whatever your reputation you, you will screw up. Disney gets it wrong, Ritz Carlton disappoint, Emirates mess up – even in Business Class (I know because it happened to me and I’ll tell you about it in a minute). But it’s what we can learn from these organisations and others that’s important.

Here are the 5 Must Do’s when it all goes wrong:

Take total ownership and responsibility

This starts by listening and I mean really listening to the problem. If you get a chance to do this face to face – happy days. If it’s on-line, via a 3rd person or anything else see if you can find a way to talk to your customer as directly as possible. DON’T hide behind emails and online complaint procedures.

You’ve heard it before, I know it’s a cliché, but complaints really are a gift. Better they tell you and you can fix it for them than they leave a negative online report about you and your business that is there forever – even after you’ve fixed it. Yes, complaints are a gift, so like receiving any present be sure you always say thank you.

Offer a solution

Have you ever been in the situation where you’ve had to complain? The chances are it wasn’t a very nice experience – the reason why most people don’t even bother to complain. If you have to do it, it takes some guts.

Don’t you just hate it when the person who you’ve pointed out the problem to asks, ‘What would like me to do for you?’ Come on! You’re the expert. You tell me what you can do.

Let me tell you about that Emirates flight. Without giving you all the dull details, a series of little things colluded to give me a pretty bad start to my flight from Dubai to London. The final straw came when I couldn’t watch a film as the video player in my armrest had eaten the tape (it sounds like a scene from the 1970’s but this was only a few years ago and it was an old plane). No one wanted to take responsibility for the problems, several members of the crew gave lovely smiles and asked what I would like. Eventually one stewardess came to the rescue. ‘Mr and Mrs Heppell, this is not what we want our passengers to experience. I’m so sorry. Would you like to come with me and take a seat in 1st Class?’ All of my problems disappeared, and all because one person took ownership and offered a solution.

If you spot the problem before the customer, ‘fess up

Which one would you rather have happen to you? a) You order and pay for a new tap with next day delivery and it doesn’t turn up, or b) You order and pay for a new tap with next day delivery and two hours later you receive a call from the supplier to let you know your order has missed the next day deadline. They are very sorry, they’ll refund your postage and the tap will be with you the day after next.

You’d think that would be a no brainer. But what many organisations do is they hide behind the problem, make a feeble excuse and only apologise if they are challenged on what went wrong.

If it’s going to go wrong and you know about it then strap a pair on and let your customer know.

Don’t tell your customers your problems

Who cares if you’re two chefs down, the van’s broken, your supplier didn’t send the stock, your systems are offline or the plethora of other excuses which are basically saying to your customers – we’re not prepared to own this problem.

The savvy consumer has heard it all before and although they may appear to be sympathetic, they’re already planning to spend their hard earned cash somewhere else next time.

Learn from it

When I work with companies we usually start our sessions with a simple diagnostic, The Service Star. One of the areas to score is ‘Same Problems Occurring’. You’d think if you’ve had the same challenge four or five times you’d do something about it? Me too, but that’s not the case. In fact many companies deal with the same challenges year after year. They become their ‘thing’, just something you deal with.

I suggest you start a complaints and solutions book. Every complaint gets logged but so does every solution. And you can’t log a complaint without a solution. New staff read it, everyone learns from it. No one hides from it. Everyone takes responsibility.

The customer isn’t always right, in fact they get it wrong too; complain unnecessarily, point the finger and yes some are out to see what they can get.

But be careful not to underestimate your customer. The majority of people are just like you; good people, who want great service and when they receive it they’re happy to pay. And when it goes wrong, if it’s fixed brilliantly, you care and they feel valued, then they might just tell their friends too.

Michael Heppell is a business speaker and author of the new 3rd edition of 5 Star Service, the UK’s best selling Customer Service book by a British author, published by Pearson, priced £12.99. For more information see