The Best Phrases for Taking Ownership of Service Failures

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Customer service often involves solving problems we didn't create.

Our colleagues make mistakes. A defective product, a late shipment, or a billing error can all send fuming customers in our direction. Sometimes, customers themselves cause the issue.

We're expected to take ownership of these situations, represent the company, and help customers feel better. Yet it's tempting to deflect ownership when the pressure is on:

  • "They don’t know what they’re doing in that department."

  • "They've been having problems in production."

  • "You should have read the policy."

The instinct is to deflect blame and distance yourself from the issue. While the words may be true, they aren't very helpful. Customers still look at you and your company as one and the same.

Here are some positive phrases that can change the tone when you have to resolve a problem that's not your fault.

Stamp with the words “own it.”

What to say when a coworker makes a mistake

Our colleagues sometimes make mistakes, and we have to pick up the pieces.

I once tried to use a paper certificate to rent a car. The employee at the rental counter told me to present it as payment when I returned the vehicle. 

Unfortunately, this was a mistake. The employee should have taken the certificate. I learned this when I returned the car and explained I was told to use the certificate then. "Who told you that?!" asked the visibly frustrated employee.

His defensive statement was designed to distance himself from the problem, but it actually made him seem less capable. Here’s a better way to handle a coworker’s error:

  1. Acknowledge the error, using “we” to accept ownership.

  2. Refocus on a solution. 

Here's what he could have said:

"I'm sorry we gave you the wrong information! It will take just a moment to get this resolved so we can get you on your way to the airport."

The time to address a coworker’s mistake is after the customer has been served. This is still an important step, since the employee might continue to make the same mistake if nobody shares any feedback.

What to say when there's a delay

Delays often happen that cause our customers to become anxious or frustrated.

You've probably found yourself getting hungry while waiting for your food in a restaurant. It doesn’t help when the server defensively says, "They're backed up in the kitchen. There's nothing I can do."

Here's a better way to approach a delay:

  1. Apologize for the delay, using “we” to accept ownership.

  2. Provide a brief explanation (this helps the customer feel better).

  3. Refocus on a solution.

A server might say it this way:

"Thanks for your patience—I'm sorry about the wait. We got a lot of orders in at the same time, so it's taking longer than usual. I just checked with the kitchen, and your food will be out in a few more minutes. May I refill your drinks in the meantime?"

Notice the brief explanation comes after the apology. 

The explanation will sound like an excuse if it comes before a sincere apology. However, providing a brief explanation after the apology can make the customer more understanding of the situation. 

What to say when it's the customer's fault

Customers are sometimes the ones who make the mistake. 

A couple went to the theatre, but discovered they had purchased tickets for the next night's show! They had paid for dinner, parking, and a babysitter, but now their fun was in danger due to a careless error.

It would have been tempting to blame the customers in this situation, but that was a lose-lose move. The customers would lose out on a night of fun, and the theatre might lose out on the couple's future business because the couple would be frustrated and embarrassed.

Here’s a better way to handle a customer’s error:

  1. Avoid blaming the customer.

  2. Minimize their embarrassment if possible.

  3. Refocus on a solution.

Here's what the theatre employee said:

"Don’t worry, this happens more than you might think! I do have two seats available a few rows back. You're welcome to take those and enjoy this evening's performance, or come back tomorrow and use your tickets then. Which would you prefer?"

Giving options reduced friction because it involved the customers in finding a solution. The grateful couple accepted the offer to attend that evening, and were happy and relieved that the theatre employee had help them recover from their own error.

Take Action

These phrases are just a few common examples. There will always be tricky situations where taking ownership and saying the right thing is a challenge.

There's a wonderful exercise in the book, The Effortless Experience, by Matt Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi called "say this, not that." I highly recommend you get the book, but here's an overview of the exercise:

  1. List situations where you might be tempted to avoid ownership.

  2. Brainstorm a list of things you should definitely not say.

  3. Discuss more positive alternatives that accept ownership.

I've facilitated this exercise with customer service teams before and it's a lot of fun. People enjoy the chance to say the wrong things out loud in a safe setting, and they appreciate coming up with effective alternatives.

Saying the right thing isn’t easy. I said the wrong thing to the first customer I ever served, but I made sure I learned from the experience.

Spot the Customer Ownership Mentality Before It's Too Late

Customers think they own things they really don't.

It's an instinctive thing. I first noticed this quirk of human nature years ago as a customer service trainer. Whenever I'd facilitate a multi-day class, people would invariably return to the same seat on day two.

Seats weren't assigned. It's just that people felt it was their seat.

Participants would even get a little uncomfortable if they arrived to find someone sitting where they had sat the day before. No reasonable person could lay claim to that seat, but you could tell they secretly thought it belonged to them.

I've since noticed this in many customer service situations. Here's an overview along with some tips on handling it.

Hey! That's My Seat

The seat issue happened on a recent Southwest Airlines flight that was delayed because of weather. Southwest doesn't have assigned seating, but that didn't stop people from thinking they owned their seat.

The flight crew handled flight delay very well. They made an announcement and told us it would be awhile. We could de-plane if we wanted to. Most people did.

A few people from our flight were re-booked on different flights so they wouldn't miss their connection. Other passengers from later flights joined ours. This meant the passenger mix was slightly different when everyone re-boarded the plane.

Per Southwest's open seating policy, the new passengers sat wherever they found an agreeable open seat. Of course, this often meant they chose to sit where someone else had been sitting before we de-planed because of the weather delay.

I could hear more than a few passengers exclaim, "Hey! That's my seat!"

Seats weren't assigned, but passengers felt they owned the seat by virtue of having sat there first. Some displayed some genuine distress despite the frequent and gentle reminders from the flight crew that Southwest Airlines has open seating.


Other Ownership Examples

There are other situations where customers can think they own things they really don't.

It happens when customers are assigned dedicated account managers. They start to develop a relationship with that person. They think their account manager is their account manager.

Trouble can happen when that account managers leaves the company or some accounts need to be re-assigned or re-distributed. Customers get upset. They feel slighted. Often, their business follows the account manager to the new company.

Perks are another great example. 

It's tired news that airlines have made people unhappy by taking away inflight meals. What people conveniently forget is that nobody liked those meals! They were the target of universal disdain. Comedians made a living by poking fun at how bad airplane food was.

But, now that they're gone, we feel slighted.

My local hardware store used to offer customers free bags of freshly popped pop corn. One day, the popcorn machine was gone. A store employee explained that they had to get rid of the popcorn because of some sort of health code issue (apparently, you need a permit or something - I didn't fully understand it, but it sounded reasonable). It made sense what the store had to do, but customers were disappointed.

At the grocery store, try shopping out of someone else's shopping cart and see how they like it! (Just kidding - don't try that.)


Prevent The Ownership Problem

There are a few things you can do to prevent the customer ownership mentality from causing service failures.

The first thing you should do is get proactive. Identify situations where this is likely to impact your customers. Create a plan to ease the pain.

The second thing you should do is set clear expectations.

The Southwest Airlines flight crew did a great job of continuously reminding people that the flight featured open seating. This prevented the ownership issue from getting worse.

If you have dedicated account managers, make sure your customers get to know a few other people. This might include other support staff or a back-up account manager who can help out if the regular person is on vacation or out sick. Setting up multiple relationships will ease the transition if their favorite account manager leaves the company or is re-assigned.

The final thing you should do is avoid taking something away from a customer that they are likely to think is theirs.

That means keeping perks in place whenever possible. Or, if you have to take something away, give customers something better in exchange.

Squarespace is a great example of this. They provide cloud-based software that makes it easy to create websites.

A few years ago, they upgraded their platform. This upgrade had many new features, but existing users had to convert their websites to the new platform to take advantage of those new features. 

Squarespace's remarkable decision was to continue supporting the old platform indefinitely while giving existing customers the option to upgrade their website to the new platform at no charge.

They gave, without taking away.

How to keep hot potatoes from burning your customers

Image source: Flickr /  Ian Burt

Image source: Flickr / Ian Burt

Some customer service problems are like a hot potato; nobody wants to touch it. 

We’ve all heard the language of excuses. Employees use these words to avoid blame and pass the proverbial potato on to someone else. None of these lines make customers happy:

  • “It just fell through the cracks.”
  • “Who told you that?!”
  • “That’s not my job.”
  • “You’ll have to talk to someone in another department.”
  • “I just do what they tell me to do.”

If you want to prevent hot potatoes from burning your customers, you’ll need to know three things about taking ownership:

  1. Why employees don’t own problems
  2. The real definition of ownership
  3. How employees can take ownership


Why employees don't own problems

I’ve asked thousands of customer service professionals why it's tempting for employees to avoid taking ownership. Their answers generally boil down into three primary reasons.

The first reason is they want to avoid blame. It’s the employee’s job to solve the problem, but this isn’t always the top priority for customer service employees. The desire to preserve self-esteem is often stronger.

The second reason is they don’t believe they can fix the problem. In many cases, the employee doesn’t have the authority or they physically aren’t able to do it. For example, if you order a steak in a restaurant and it comes out undercooked, your server has to rely on the chef to cook the steak a little longer. If the chef chronically undercooks steaks, the server may eventually develop what psychologists called learned helplessness and stop trying altogether.

The third reason is the employee is disengaged. According to Gallup’s latest report, 70 percent of American workers are not engaged with their company. These employees aren’t about to go out of their way to solve a difficult problem. It’s much easier to pass a hot potato along to someone else.

If you want to overcome these challenges, you’ll need to help employees understand the real definition of ownership.


The real definition of ownership

Here’s how I define ownership in customer service:

Ownership is the process of accepting responsibility for solving a problem. 

Notice that ownership is not:

  • Accepting blame
  • Assigning blame to someone else
  • Personally fixing the problem (although this might happen)

Employees who take ownership expand their circle of influence to find a way to get things done. They navigate around obstacles. They work with others to solve the problem if they can’t do it themselves. They resist temptation to pass the buck. They refuse to let anything fall through the cracks.


How employees can take ownership

Here’s a simple three-step model that can help employees learn to take ownership. 

Step 1: Acknowledge the problem. It’s important to demonstrate empathy by acknowledging the problem. This validates the customer’s negative emotions and positions the employee as someone who cares. If this is something you or your employees struggle with, you can read my post on five ways to help employees empathize.

Step 2: Re-focus on a solution. The conversation should now re-focus on finding a solution. Think of this as customer service judo where you take all of the energy surrounding the problem and redirect it towards partnering with the customer to find a solution. 

Step 3: Be the point person. The means making sure the problem gets resolved one way or another. Sometimes, the employee fixes the problem personally. At other times, the employee must coordinate with other people to obtain a solution.

Cindy, a participant in one of my customer service training classes, recently sent me an outstanding example of how to effectively use this model.

"A customer had previously left a voicemail message for a co-worker who had been on vacation. When she called in I assured her that I would get the information for her right away.” (Step 1: Acknowledge the problem)

Cindy asked a few questions to find out what the customer needed. “Turns out it was actually a problem for a different co-worker. When all was said and done there were others who had partial information regarding this customer's request.” (Step 2: Re-focus on a solution)

“I took responsibility for making sure her needs were met by getting all communication components from those involved and responded back to her quickly with what she needed." (Step 3: Be the point person)

You only imagine what would have happened if Cindy has simply dumped the call into her co-worker's voicemail instead of handling it!


Additional Resources

Solving problems is a huge part of providing outstanding customer service. Here are some more resources that can help you become a master problem solver: