How Their Service Failure Can Be Your Problem

Chances are, you've had a bad customer service week. One where it seems like you receive bad service everywhere you turn. Just when you think it can't get any worse, it does.

Mine started recently when a company shipped me the wrong socks. I normally wouldn't think much of a shipping error. This one turned out to be just the tip of the service failure iceberg. 

That same week, I had to contact a local hardware store multiple times to find a missing part for a front door handle. Painters ruined several window screens on my home. A new microwave stopped working properly and required a service call, crushing my schedule between 8am and 12pm one day.

My patience began to wear thin as the week went on. It started taking more of an effort to be a level-headed, friendly customer as I tried to resolve each of these situations. 

It also made me realize something you may already know—an upset customer might not just be frustrated at your company's service failure.

 An angry customer yells into the phone.

Bad Experiences Add Up

The common denominator for all my bad experiences was time.

Each service failure required time to resolve that I hadn't planned on spending. It's frustrating to feel as though your time is being wasted. This can lead to anxiety if you are already busy with multiple tight deadlines.

Service failures often get amplified by multiple failed attempts to fix an issue. 

For example, the company that manufactured my door handle didn't include an installation manual or parts list with the handle, so I knew a part was missing but couldn't tell exactly which one. The company's website didn't have the information and the support team was closed by the time I researched the issue.

Imagine your company makes socks and I'm your customer. I've just experienced that runaround with the hardware store. Suddenly, a small shipping error with a pair of socks doesn't feel small anymore. It feels like the straw that broke the camel's back. 

The reaction might be disproportionate to the error. Oh boy did I have to work hard not to let that happen, but imagine a customer who wasn't so conscientious about how they treated your employees?



Their Service Failure, Your Problem

A couple of years ago, I unearthed some fascinating research about how customers react to customer service situations when they are already upset about something else.

Two problems can occur:

  • Customers are more judgmental.
  • Customers become less open to ideas.

Neither is a recipe for a good service outcome. Judgmental customers are more likely to nitpick small imperfections or imagine service issues. We often need customers to be open to ideas so we can solve their issue.

A healthy dose of empathy is required to help many of these customers. Empathy can help cool down those negative emotions and convince your customer that you're on their side.

The painting crew won the empathy award during my recent week of service failures. 

The foreman was sincerely apologetic about the window screens. He then showed me how the screens' advanced age made them bend and tear easily. (In other words, he empathized with me, even though the problem wasn't his crew's fault.) He also came up with a way to temporarily fix the screens so they would look good cosmetically until I could get them replaced.

I appreciated his efforts and started to feel a little better. His creative fix took an immediate problem and put it on the back burner. And that helped put the issue back into a more appropriate perspective.


Create a Competitive Advantage

The crew from Peek Brothers Painting stood out in a positive way during my very bad week of service failures. The empathy and extra effort from the foreman to help with the window screens helped. I also received several compliments from my neighbors about how courteous the crew was.

And, of course, the paint job was beautiful.

Imagine your customer service team is an empathy oasis in an angry desert. You might take the brunt of a customer's anger or frustration when they are experiencing multiple issues. You can also be their hero.

Here's one way to take action:

  1. Share this post with your team.
  2. Discuss times you experienced multiple service failures from different companies. 
  3. Think of ways you can make those customers feel better.

It often takes just one friendly, kind, and patient person to turn around a customer's perspective. Try to be that person with your upset customers. 

They'll appreciate your efforts and your company will suddenly stand out in a positive way.

The Surprising Consequence of Consumer Anger

Losing customers isn't the only thing to worry about when there's a service failure.

You've probably seen the typical angry customer studies. The numbers change, but the gist is X percent of customers will stop doing business with a company after a service failure. While not exactly an earth shattering discovery, these studies prove that good service is good for business.

But what happens to the angry customers who continue doing business with your company? There doesn't seem to be a lot of discussion or concern about this group.

That could be a mistake.

I recently discovered this study from Dr. Venessa Funches that reveals angry customers may continue doing business with your company, but they can still find other ways to hurt you.

Here's what you need to watch out for.

 Angry customer fuming.

How Angry Customers Punish Companies

Funches gathered data from 732 people who were asked to recall a specific customer service situation that made them angry. The respondents were then asked what they did next.

As expected, a large portion stopped doing business with the company. In this study, it was 42 percent. The remaining 58 percent still did business with the company, but many changed their buying behavior (respondents could choose multiple options):

  • 35 percent reduced the amount of business they did
  • 25 percent stopped buy certain products or services
  • 17 percent stopped doing business with a particular location

Then there's the 25 percent of customers who said they continued doing business with a company in the same way because they felt they had to. You will see no change in buying behavior from these customers, though they may still find other ways to hurt you:

Here's what else angry customers do:

  • 70 percent spread negative word-of-mouth about the company
  • 60 percent complain to the company

Negative word of mouth includes a lot of things business leaders don't like to see:

  • Negative online reviews (Yelp, Google My Business, Trip Advisor, etc.)
  • Negative social media posts (hello viral tweet!)
  • Negative stories shared with friends

Notice that not all customers complain to the business. There are many reasons that angry customers don't complain, so it's never safe to assume that no complaints means all is well.


What You Can Do About It

Funches's study discovered that broken promises were the number one source of customer anger. If I'm a customer service leader, I start there and look for trends in service failures.

Many customer service departments react to one complaint at a time. For example, I recently bought a handleset for my front door. There was a part missing and, even worse, there was no instructional manual in the box to help identify exactly which part I needed. The company's website did not have an instruction manual for this particular door handle, either.

It took a lot of back-and-forth to finally identify the missing part.

The major failure is it's been two months and those support documents still aren't on the company's website. That means countless other customers have likely struggled through the installation process.

These types of issues are preventable. Smart customer service leaders do two things on a regular basis:

  • They look for icebergs that are subtle signs of bigger problems, such as the missing handleset instructions. 
  • They collect aggregate data on the top causes of service failures so those issues can be quickly addressed.

Another action step is to re-engage customers after a critical incident.

Years ago, I worked as a national account manager for a company that sold business uniforms. A customer called who was pretty upset about a mistake in an order she received. I apologized for the mistake and agreed to send out the corrected uniforms at no charge.

Many customer service professionals stop there. An even better move is to follow up again once the customer has had a chance to cool off. In my case, I called the customer right after her replacement order was scheduled to arrive. My last conversation was during a moment of misery, but this time I was talking to my customer during a moment of delight.

The replacement order had arrived safely and the customer was very happy with the outcome.


Take Action!

Customer-focused companies are constantly learning from angry customers. Try to find the source of what's causing their anger and fix it.

Another tactic is to try to prevent customer anger in the first place. This short video shares a technique called the Pre-Emptive Acknowledgement to help you do that.

Insider Perspectives: Brand Expert Denise Lee Yohn on Culture

I recently had a chance to speak with brand leadership expert, Denise Lee Yohn about her new book, Fusion: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Greatest Companies.

Fusion is a wonderfully practical guide to aligning your company's brand with your organizational culture. The book makes three primary arguments why this is essential:

1. Employees work more efficiently when they share a common goal. 

2. Fusing brand and culture makes a brand more authentic.

3. Aligning brand and culture leads to better brand execution.

You'll find plenty of real-life examples to illustrate each concept and many helpful exercises that result in concrete action steps.

The book is now on sale through leading retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I took a few pages of notes when I read Fusion and I highly recommend it.

It's always fun to talk about culture, especially with an expert like Denise. Here's her perspective on brand-culture fusion.

Q: A lot of leaders point to the importance of culture, but I don't know if we're always talking about the same thing. How do you define it?

"In the most informal way, culture is the way we do things around here.

"A more formal definition is the way people in your organization act and the attitudes and beliefs that inform those actions.

"One client I'm currently working with is a large technology company. They have a very process oriented and hierarchical culture, so the interactions between employees are more formal, structured, and preplanned. Another client, a senior living center company, has a nurturing and empathetic culture, so their employees are very concerned about how others are feeling and if they are growing and being cared for."


Q: What is a brand-culture fusion?

"Fusion introduces the concept of fusing brand and culture together so they are well-integrated and tightly aligned within an organization.

"Many companies focus on brand and culture separately, which can create silos where a brand doesn't really reflect the culture.

"The greatest companies fuse both of these together so they are working together.

"The culture and brand at Airbnb, the hospitality company, are one and the same—they're both about belonging. Airbnb wants customers to feel like they belong anywhere, wherever their travels might take them. It also wants employees to feel like they belong at the company, so its employee experience is all about community and comfort."


Q: This seems like a straightforward idea. Why don't more organizations do this?

"A couple of reasons come to mind.

"One is I think there's a misperception about what makes a good culture. Business leaders often cling to this idea that there's a right culture that focuses on things like being nice and supportive.

"That's just wrong. There isn't one right type of culture for every organization. For example, Amazon is known for being an incredibly customer-focused brand. They also have a challenging culture that's difficult for many people to work in because expectations for being customer-focused are so high. Amazon succeeds because it has a distinctive culture, but that culture is clearly not the right culture for everyone.

"I also think most leaders at the top would consider culture to be a human resources function and branding to be a marketing function. So it becomes dysfunctional where each department is doing its own thing and there's a lack of leadership to bring these functions together.

"A lot of executives tend to misunderstand both culture and brand. Many think of branding as just advertising or a logo. Culture can be the same way where executives liken it to ping pong tables or free beer Fridays. It becomes something that's tactical where you can just check it off the list rather than something that's fundamentally ingrained in your organization's core values."


Q: What's the connection between a brand-culture fusion and customer service?

"In Fusion, I outline nine general brand types. 

"One type of brand is Service, which are companies like The Ritz-Carlton that use service to differentiate their brand from competitors. So a service-focused culture becomes critically important for these organizations. 

"But all companies need to provide good customer service, even if it uses luxury, value, or another brand type besides service to differentiate itself. It's essential for all companies to have a brand guide or toolkit that helps all employees bring your brand values to life in all facets of the company.

"This helps people align their decisions with the brand and culture, such as how to interact with a customer."

(Note: You can learn more by taking this Fusion Assessment.)


Q: What is the one thing you really want people to know about the brand-culture fusion?

"Just one?! A few come to mind!

"The top one might be that your culture needs to be as unique as your brand. It's not enough to just be generic like friendly, supportive, etc. You need a distinctive culture to really produce specific results that are on brand and motivate employees to do what we need them to do.

"It's also important for people to understand there's a difference between simple and easy when it comes to culture-building. I think the concepts behind  brand-culture fusion are simple, but culture is not easy!"

Fusion is a must-read for anyone interested in marketing, branding, or service culture. It's available in e-book and hardcover formats.

Five Ways Leaders Unwittingly Sabotage Their Teams

The association president decided to make an informal speech to the crowd gathered at the happy hour. He realized the people towards the back couldn't see him, so he grabbed one of the hotel's banquet chairs and stood on it.

Standing on chairs is dangerous. Every year, numerous employees suffer broken arms, legs, ankles, and other serious injuries sustained when they fell off a chair they were standing on at work. 

The president set a poor example with his behavior. When he asked a conference organizer to say a few words after his speech, she hesitated a moment and then reluctantly followed the president's lead and stood on the chair as well.

Leaders should understand employees are paying attention to the way a leader behaves. Here are five examples of leadership behaviors can than undermine your message to the team.

 Angry boss yelling at an employee.


Employees look to see how the boss treats customers and even other employees. If the boss treats people poorly, employees will, too.

One customer service leader regularly belittled his employees. He disparaged them for poor service, gossiped about employees to coworkers, and generally acted like a bully if he didn't get his way. Even worse, he shied away from customer interaction, even going so far as to feign important meetings to avoid talking to a customer. Needless to say, employees were scared of the boss and did just enough not to get noticed.

Employees look to their leaders to model outstanding service. As a leader, it's up to you to demonstrate the appropriate behaviors when working with customers or even fellow employees.



Employees tend to understand how important something is by how and when you talk about it.

One restaurant manager rarely talked about service with his employees. He spent most of his time discussing compliance issues such as attendance, following procedures, and adhering to policies. His tone was consistently negative. 

One day, the manager sent a nasty memo to his employees addressing a string of poor Yelp reviews. He criticized employees for their performance and threatened to fire people for continued bad service. The memo was the first time he had communicated anything about service in a long time, and it only served to demotivate employees.

Take a moment to review your own communication. Think of the emails, verbal discussions, and team meetings you had in the past week. What were the most frequent topics? Do you tend to use a tone of encouragement or compliance?



Employees will look to their leader to see what is tolerated and what is not.

An employee in one organization routinely generated complaints for poor customer service. Her boss wanted to hold her accountable, but the business unit's vice president overrode the decision. The vice president felt the employees' sales numbers were too valuable to the unit's scorecard, and she didn't want to undermine her unit's successful image by correcting a top producer. This send the clear message that poor service was fine as long as you made your sales numbers look good.

Think about what negative behaviors you allow. Leaders often make excuses to themselves, brushing away minor transgressions and being too minor to worry about. Beware that tolerating something small often sets the stage for even worse performance in the future.



Employees look to their leader for enthusiasm.

I'll never forget the first boss I ever had, Christi. I was working in a retail clothing store while I was in high school and just starting to learn about customer service. At the end of every day, I noticed how Christi would walk around the store and thank every employee for doing a good job. She always displayed such enthusiasm for working at the store that her employees felt a strong urge to do a great job for her.

Other managers have the opposite effect. They are consistently negative or overly serious, which are usually not ideal attitudes for employees to convey to customers. One executive flat out refused to say "Good morning" to employees as they arrived for work and passed her in the halls. Those managers unconsciously influence employees to act the same way.

Consider what attitudes you display to your employees. Are you enthusiastic? Negative? Serious? Authentic?



Employees place a lot of weight on the hidden message behind a leader's decisions.

A software company's support team leader told his team that service was a top priority. Yet the leader consistently made decisions designed to save money. The support team was understaffed, undertrained, and lacked some of the tools needed to serve customers at a high level. Employees soon realized that service wasn't a top priority at all. The real priority was short-term cost savings.

A leader at another software company made a completely different set of decisions. He worked with his support team to create a customer service vision, which is a shared definition of outstanding service. He then used that vision to guide other key decisions such as goal setting, hiring, training, procedures, and even his communication as a leader. Support employees in that company quickly realized that service was truly the top priority.

Pay careful attention to your own decisions and how you make them. Your employees are watching and will understand your true priorities by the direction you take.


Take Action!

Take a moment to complete a personal inventory of the behaviors you've modeled in the past week. These questions can be a powerful assessment of your performance as a leader.

  • Service: Do you consistently model a strong service culture?
  • Communication: Do you consistently have positive communication about service?
  • Tolerance: Do you tolerate negative or inappropriate behavior?
  • Enthusiasm: Do you regularly display genuine enthusiasm for serving customers?
  • Decisions: Do you use service as a top priority when making decisions?

The results can be eye opening.

Who First Said "The Customer Is Always Right?"

"The customer is always right" has a longstanding tradition in customer service.

Pushy customers quote it when they try to get their way. Customer service professionals bristle at the saying because they know it isn't true. Customers are often wrong.

When I was doing research a few years ago for my book, Service Failure, I tried to find the origin of that lousy quote. My goal was to find the person who first said it and maybe send them a box of glitter or something equally horrible.

What I learned was a surprise. It's likely the original quote has been mangled over time. Here's what I learned.

 Guest and server having a disagreement in a cafe.

The Origin Story

There's no conclusive evidence as to who first said "The customer is always right." However, the Quote Investigator website does reveal some interesting possibilities.

One contender is the famous hotelier, Cesar Ritz. He is credited with saying "The customer is never wrong," in 1908.

Another contender is the Chicago retailer, Marshall Field. He was quoted in The Boston Herald on September 3, 1905 as saying "The customer is always right." 

There are two issues that call this quote into question. 

One is a longer version of the quote adds important context (although I can't locate the origin). The longer quote is, "Right or wrong, the customer is always right." 

The second issue is a similar quote attributed to another Chicago retailer, Sears, Roebuck, & Co, was published several months earlier in April, 1905: "Every one of their thousands of employes are instructed to satisfy the customer regardless of whether the customer is right or wrong."

The most likely explanation is "The customer is always right" concept predated these quotes published in 1905. I tend to believe the longer version of Field's quote because it adds additional meaning and other stories place its origin much earlier in time. Alas, I can't find any proof of those stories.

Does it matter?

Customers are absolutely wrong at times. To me, the real meaning of "The customer is always right" is our goal in service is to help the customer be right, even when they are technically wrong.

This suggests some specific types of actions:

  • Don't argue with customers
  • Partner with customers to help them succeed
  • Help customers avoid making mistakes
  • Be generous in your policies
  • Give customers the benefit of the doubt

"The customer is always right" is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of inaccurate customer service quotes and statistics floating around.

The key is to take each one with a grain of salt and understand the true meaning and intent behind them.