Don't let icebergs sink your service ship


Note: I originally wrote this article in 2009. It didn’t make it over to my recently upgraded website, so I’ve updated and republished it.

Getting the first shipment of your new book is an exciting time for any author. It was definitely a thrill for me to open my box of Service Failure books and see the result of a lot of hard work.

I was excited to hold my first book, blissfully unaware of the iceberg.

I was excited to hold my first book, blissfully unaware of the iceberg.

I brought a copy to my parents when I visited them that weekend. It was my Dad that made the discovery during my visit. Pages were falling out of the book.

We encounter problems like this every day in the business world. The challenge we face is determining whether it is an isolated incident or just the tip of the iceberg. 

Isolated incidents can and will happen. They’re unfortunate, but you can generally recover quickly. 

Icebergs will sink your service ship. That’s because the real problem is unknown. Just like a real iceberg, the hidden part of the customer service iceberg is larger and more dangerous.

Was my parents’ defective book an isolated incident or the tip of an iceberg? Here’s the three step approach I used to address the issue:


Step 1: Don’t assume it’s an isolated incident

It’s too easy to dismiss a problem as an isolated incident. Fix the problem, make the customer happy, and move on.

Rude employee? So sorry, we’ll talk to him. Food not cooked to your liking? Dessert is on us. It took too long to answer your call? We’re experiencing a temporary spike in call volume. 

But what if it’s not an isolated incident? 

Believe me, I wanted the book I gave my parents to be the one and only copy with its pages falling out. It would certainly make things easy. In fact, it would be a relief knowing that the sole defective book went to someone I knew so I could easily replace it.

There’s a simple question I ask whenever I encounter a problem like this:

“Can the same problem exist in other places?”

The first thing I did when I got back home from visiting my parents was check all of my books. Sure enough, every single one of them had the same defect that caused pages to fall out. I had found an iceberg!


Step 2: Find the root cause

As counter-intuitive as it seems, you should not immediately try to fix the customer’s problem when you spot an iceberg. 


Let’s imagine I sent my parents a new book to replace the defective one. How do I know the pages in the new book won't also fall out? I can’t be assured they won’t get another defective copy until I understand the problem. 

Now imagine you are working with a customer who isn’t quite so understanding as your dear old Mom and Dad. Sending out a second defective product will only compound their frustration and hurt your reputation. You can’t fix things for the customer until you solve the problem.

You should always ask this question when you encounter an iceberg:

What caused the problem?

I immediately called my editor at AMACOM once I realized all my books had the same defect. He had one in his office and found the same problem with his copy. He promised to look into it and get back to me right away.

My editor got back to me just a few hours later. They had located the source of the problem. Not all books were affected, but they couldn’t tell how many. As a precaution, they were going to reprint all of the books. 

It was an expensive move, but the right one.


Step 3: Provide proactive customer service

I was grateful to learn about the problem from my Dad. He was able to serve as a customer service canary, an early warning system that alerted me to the problem before it became too widespread.

Learning about icebergs and fixing them quickly allows you to proactively serve your customers. You can reach out to the people affected and offer solutions that minimize hassle. You can also prevent future customers from experiencing the same issue. In the long run, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to fix a small problem now than a large problem later.

It’s always good to ask this question when you find the root cause of a customer service iceberg:

Who else is affected?

Understanding the potential scope of the problem allows you to create a proactive customer service strategy. One big concern with Service Failure was that Amazon had also received an early shipment and had used it to fulfill all of their pre-orders. The good news was that I knew many of the people who had pre-ordered the book and could contact them personally. The bad news was that I didn’t know them all.

I worked with my publisher, AMACOM, to devise a proactive customer service strategy once we understood the scope of the problem. Retailers like Amazon have their own generous return policies that allowed customers to return or exchange defective books, but I wanted to get out ahead of the problem as much as possible. 

Here’s what we did:

  • Several people, including myself, double-checked the new batch of books to ensure there were no problems. There weren’t.

  • AMACOM authorized their customer service department to send out a replacement book to anyone who had received a defective one. The customer didn’t have to return the defective copy. This was a critical step since it would save customers time and effort if they went this route.

  • I personally contacted everyone I knew who had pre-ordered a book from Amazon. I told them how to quickly check for the defect since it wasn’t immediately obvious. I also gave them instructions for getting a replacement copy from AMACOM if they needed one.

  • I followed up with anyone I knew who received a defective copy to ensure their replacement copy arrived in good condition.

This was a lot of extra effort. It was also much better than potentially disappointing many more readers. 

What will you do the next time you encounter a customer service problem? It may just be an isolated incident, but beware of icebergs!