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Brandstand: The ‘Make-up Kit’ for service failures

Brands today are over-zealous in trying to compensate for deficiencies in the service experience often through unsustainable promises that can easily backfire. That is why every brand with a direct customer interface needs to invest in a dynamic protocol of redressal, which can well be termed the ‘Make-up Kit’

In the ever-expanding service industry, we are constantly judging brands by the consistency and quality of the delivery outcome. Our experiences are duly noted and often uploaded on social media filled with encouraging positivity when deemed suitable else with disparaging and dangerous negativity. As a result, brands today are over-zealous in trying to compensate for deficiencies in the service experience often through unsustainable promises that can easily backfire. That is why every brand with a direct customer interface needs to invest in a dynamic protocol of redressal, which can well be termed the ‘Make-up Kit’.

The most dangerous trap to avoid is the tempting practice of Over-Precision that is increasingly evident across a wide plethora of categories. Just recently I was scheduled to board a Jet Airways flight from Pune to Delhi which started recording a delay estimation almost five hours prior to take-off. While being appreciative of the elaborate notice, the revised take-off time was recorded as 8.26 pm with the scheduled arrival at 10.31 pm. A clinical claim that is impossible to fulfil given the inevitability of further delays as well as the notorious air traffic conditions in Delhi. A second example is to do with the revised customer protocol in the Airtel store wherein the big white board flashes an estimated waiting time, which for me effortlessly extended from 11 minutes to 23 minutes by the clock. Quite unnecessarily aggravating an imminent angst caused by the leisurely conduct of both customer and attendant in concluding the discussion. In restaurants, we often wait impatiently for a delayed dish and are irked by the fake promises of imminence courtesy a manager trained to manage for the very short term without understanding the damaging implications.

Another significant trap to avoid is the Intuitive Repartee influenced by the need for face-saving immediacy as opposed to appropriate humility leading to a logical response. When dining at Oh Calcutta in Tardeo Mumbai, we have often discovered a designated starter appearing upfront as opposed to being clubbed with the main meal as per earnestly-noted request. Incredibly on every occasion the articulate manager was prompt to cook up a tale of tradition and culinary protocol as opposed to a simple acceptance of an error. When aboard a very successful airline and facing the gourmand trauma of non-vegetarian fare running out, the otherwise well-groomed lady blurted out ‘catering error’ as a departmental fallacy as opposed to simply owning up to a calculation error. What takes the cake as the ultimate illogical repartee must be the excuse of late arrival of incoming aircraft, practiced by every airline be it legacy or low-cost in India most certainly. A clear operating deficiency of the service provider cleverly packaged as a philosophical error, almost an act of God that absolves every salary-earning mortal of her due responsibility.

As a member of the advertising industry for almost two decades, I am also an able witness of yet another futile trap, which is that of Process-in-Recess or in other words Quality Alibi -- an age-old habit of engineering cultures to use excellence as an excuse for delay in delivery and thus combining emotional and rational logic to comfort the customer. The campaign could not be presented as the creative director, secretly on holiday in Cinque Terre, is apparently not satisfied with the result and thus the necessity for a couple of extra weeks. A practised emulated by boutique tailors as well to rake in multiple orders at the expense of due delivery and indeed by the real-estate developers across segments to delay the possession acquired by a lifetime of savings. Quality can be quite a credible alibi only temporarily and when exaggerated, can easily lead to an equally dramatic loss in credibility that is difficult to recover.

The ‘Make-up Kit’ useful for marketers across categories engaged in customer interface will consist of a simple four-step formula to ensure that temporary failures do not lead to permanent damages, in the process creating a culture of co-opting customers in both success and failure thus leading to a true habit of co-creation that leads to better experiences. As a key foundation for this state of thinking, it is important to establish a climate of proactive transparency, which makes the buyer believe that she is actually a valuable stakeholder for bettering the current service experience.

The first step in this process is the act of Honest Acceptance which essentially means that the brand owner must learn to believe that failures are a part of the experience cycle. What makes them worse is an organisational culture of denial as the currently vibrant social media environment ensures that any unnecessary smartness leads immediately to severe censure. As depicted most evocatively in the United Airlines crisis where the CEO had to rapidly retrieve lost ground by a sudden infusion of humility. Honest Acceptance must be treated not just as an ethically ideal state but more importantly as a necessary tool for sustainable damage control. Front-end employees must not be just trained but even incentivised to proactively recognise and acknowledge the deficiency.

The second step as a logical follow-up will be craft an appropriate verbal or documented Primary Response. What is critical to note here is that the initial response be the final solution but instead just an active acknowledgement of the need for a considered solution. A simple study of hotel management responses on Tripadvisor will give us a clue of the difference between the two often connected to the quality of the organisation. In this particular instance, if a customer has complained about say a buffet breakfast service then the first acknowledgement can just be a humble response for enquiry as opposed to an instant reaction. What gains credibility amongst genuine customers is the sincere intent for redressal as opposed to a fake instantaneous output that is visible to one and all.

The third and most decisive step is the process of Intrusive Investigation that must be conducted with due sincerity within the value chain most connected to the delivery pain point. In certain cases, this can be part of a standard process manual or in other cases this may merit a specific investigation. When Domino’s Pizza got into trouble recently over the hygiene standards of a specific restaurant, quite certainly a combination of standard procedure and specific interrogation must have been applied. Just as the ombudsman is an external ethical interface, a service-level internal audit team must be empowered to assess and identify the real problem. Which in the case of United Airlines was a survey of guest management policy to ensure that over-vigilantism does not lead to the elimination of basic human values.

The fourth and final link is the solution management process that completes the entire chain – where the organisation swiftly identifies the steps for redressal and sets in motion tangible action points to resolve the same. This can be in the form of small steps like a compensatory meal or the invitation for being a part of an empowered consumer panel or it can be in the form of large interventions like a fundamental change in business policy. Constant complaints about on-board smoke affecting children led to smoke-free flights across the world while the necessity for customised service was instrumental in QSR brands resorting to personalised service in India breaking global protocol. Intrinsic to this entire process is the act of communicating the change as a final action point, which can range from a customised consumer letter or even a mass media campaign announcing the developments.

Every brand with an interest in customer satisfaction must employ the ‘Make-up Kit’ as a standard operating tool training key personnel to implement the same on a foundation of genuine humility and willingness to change. No longer as a result of wanting to establish a higher-order connection with society but instead a basic survival tool in this very discerning and demonstrative world of customer responses. The four-way toolkit of honest acceptance, primary response, intrusive investigation and solution management will enable organisations to achieve exactly that.

(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: shivajidasgupta@inexgro.com)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of BestMediaInfo.com and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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