Prepare for Unexpected Surprises on Your Customer Journey

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Unusual situations can make or break customer experience.

I recently discovered three torn couch cushions at The Overlook, a vacation rental property my wife and I own. The cushions all belong to a patio furniture set we had purchased a year ago.

Replacing or repairing the cushions has been a difficult challenge so far.

  • There's no information on the furniture company's website about torn cushions.
  • A customer service rep told me I can't buy individual cushions.
  • The warranty department denied my claim to have the cushions fixed.

So now I have three torn couch cushions and no idea how to fix them. I've also developed some resentment toward a company I've bought a lot of furniture from.

Think about how your employees are equipped to handle unusual situations. Here are a few ways you can test that.

Two surprised and unhappy customers reacting to something they see on a computer.

Test for Rigid Channel Options

Try calling your company.

Chances are, you'll first be connected to a phone menu. Make a list of the options and then pull a random sample of 20 customer calls. Ask yourself how neatly each call fits those options.

The furniture company had just three options when I called:

  1. Place an order
  2. Check on an order
  3. Warranty information

It wasn't clear which option fit my situation. Should I place an order for new cushions? Did the company even sell individual cushions? Or is it possible the cushions could be repaired or replaced under warranty?

Some companies have a built-in menu for chat and web contact forms. You can test these with the same exercise you did for the phone channel. Pull a sample of 20 contacts and see how closely each one fits the menu options.

Many companies avoid menus entirely. Emails sent through a web contact form are routed to the the right person using behind-the-scenes technology. Phone, chat, and social media agents are trained on a wide range of issues and can pull in an expert colleague if needed.


Test for Rigid Procedures

It's often helpful to have clear procedures. 

This makes it easier to train employees, since how to do things is well documented. It can also make things more efficient when everyone is operating the same way.

But there's a danger when procedures are too rigid.

The warranty procedure at the furniture company was a great example. The procedure was I called in and spoke with an intake person. She took down the basics of my claim and emailed a link where I could upload photos of the damage. I asked her for additional ideas and options, but she was unable to provide any information outside of the procedure.

The warranty team was supposed to reply within 3-5 business days, but they never did. When I escalated the issue to the social media team, all I got was a flat no. They denied my claim and plainly stated they weren't going to help.

I'm not upset that the warranty claim was denied. I'm upset that I still have three torn couch cushions and the company isn't helping me fix that issue.

Take a look at your top customer complaints. Chances are, there's a rigid procedure or an inflexible policy behind it. 

  • Are your employees empowered to react to unusual situations?
  • Do employees instinctively focus on a solution or defending the policy?


Take Action

You can learn a lot of examining your top customer complaints.

One client I worked with was the parking department for a university. Their biggest customer complaint was the process used to issue annual parking passes. It required people to come to the parking office on campus and wait in a long line.

The parking department redesigned this process around making it easy for customers. They set up temporary stations around campus so people could pick up their parking pass near the building where they worked. The annual parking pass quickly went from the biggest complaint to the biggest compliment.

In The Service Culture Handbook, one of the companies I profiled was Leaders consistently ask customer service agents for input on how to improve processes. Agents are asked to answer two questions when they submit their ideas:

  1. Why is this better for the customer?
  2. Why is this better for the customer care agent?

Ideas that are better for both the customer and the agent get the strongest consideration. The process also helps agents feel empowered to improve wonky processes for both themselves and the people they serve.

Lessons from The Overlook: Verify Procedures are Followed

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

Last month, I wrote that guest bookings had suddenly slowed at The Overlook. Our property manager called at the beginning of June with a new problem.

The Overlook was too hot inside and she was having trouble renting it to guests. The cabin can get to 80 degrees or hotter inside when the weather turns warm. Even worse, the cabin develops a distinctive, "musty cabin" smell when the inside temperature rises too high.

Our cabin doesn't have air conditioning, so our property manager wanted us to consider adding central air. As an alternative, she thought we could add window ac units to each bedroom.

If this problem sounds familiar, it's because it is. We went through the same exercise last year. At the time, we thought the problem was solved.

Many businesses encounter recurring problems. Here's how we handled this one.

The afternoon sun heats The Overlook if the blinds are left open.

Step 1: Know Your History

Start by checking to see if the problem has already been solved.

Harried employees quickly forget decisions made last year, last month, or even last week. Do you remember what we decided at last Monday's meeting? Yeah, me neither.

Employees come and go, too. New employees often think they are the first ones to encounter an issue, without realizing their predecessor kept copious notes on how to handle it.

And some managers are too eager to put their own stamp on something. They change for the sake of change, without first understanding why something was done a certain way.

Forgetting your history can be expensive and wasteful. 

For example, it would cost $600 (on the low end) to put window ac units in each bedroom at The Overlook. Adding central air conditioning would cost at least $5,000. Given our recent sales slump, it might be tempting to spend that money on a quick fix without verifying we'd get a reasonable return.

We knew we had already found a solution to the heat problem at The Overlook last year. So we decided to check on that first before deciding to spend any more money.


Step 2: Check the Procedure

It's always a good idea to ensure the existing procedure is being followed before implementing anything new. Existing procedures can represent a known solution to a problem. 

Unfortunately, procedures aren't always rigorously followed. People develop poor habits. A new employees comes onboard and isn't properly trained. Infrequently needed procedures are simply forgotten.

We had an existing procedure for dealing with the heat at The Overlook:

  1. Close the blinds during the day to keep the hot sun out.
  2. Turn the ceiling fans to summer mode. 
  3. Put window fans in the bedroom windows.

Two of the three steps were not being followed when we checked. The blinds had been left open and the window fans were still in the closet where we had stored them for the winter.

Our property manager followed the remaining two steps and the cabin quickly cooled. The inside temperature was a nice 72 degrees on a recent weekend when we had guests.

Better yet, we quickly picked up several more guest bookings. This puts us back on track after a slightly slow May.


Step 3: Follow-up

If an existing procedure breaks down once, it's reasonable to assume it will break down again without reinforcement. You can help prevent this with some timely follow-up.

Sally and I need to accept some responsibility for the heat issue at The Overlook.

We learned long ago that adopting our property manager's standard procedures makes things run more smoothly. The company oversees more than 40 cabins, which makes it difficult to keep track of a procedure that's only used in one particular cabin for a few months a year.

It makes sense for us to remind our property manager about the heat abatement procedure the next time it starts getting warm.

Following these same steps can save you a lot of grief when things go wrong. It's tough enough to solve a problem one time, let alone solving it over and over again!

Your service is only as good as the weakest link in the chain

A recent post on Micah Solomon’s excellent College of the Customer blog discussed how companies who only pretend to care are doing their customers a disservice. He described a service failure where a hotel sent him a pre-arrival email inviting him to contact the general manager with any special requests, but then failed to deliver when Solomon took them up on their offer. (Read the post here.)

This type of experience is frustrating, and Solomon makes the point that the offer comes across as disingenuous when it’s not fulfilled. That may be true, but I’d be willing to bet the problem is just as likely the result of a broken service process. According to John Goodman, vice chairman of the noted customer loyalty agency TARP Worldwide, these types of failures are responsible for as much as 60 percent of customer complaints. (See more in Goodman's book, Strategic Customer Service.) 

Here are a few examples:

A hotel promises its airport shuttle will arrive every 20 minutes, but it takes an average of 25 minutes to drive the route. The result is the shuttle is usually late. Fail!

A new credit card arrives in the mail. The accompanying letter instructs the cardholder to go to a website for instant activation, but the web address doesn't direct the customer to an activation page. This causes the customer to spend extra time searching the company's website for activation instructions. Fail!

A consultant sends his client a link to an archived webinar, but the client can’t open the link. The result is the client has to send another email to ask the consultant for a working link. Fail! (Okay, this one was me. Soooooooo embarrassing.)

How to eliminate broken processes

There are at least three great ways to prevent service failures that are the result of broken processes.

1. Test
Test things out before sharing them with your customers. Timing the route between the hotel and the airport before writing the shuttle schedule would allow the hotel to determine how long it actually takes. If the hotel realized ahead of time that driving the route took 25 minutes on average, the hotel could revise its schedule or add more shuttles to avoid disappointing guests.

2. Map the touch points
Identify how and where your customer will interact with your company (a.k.a. touch points) and make sure they are all aligned. The credit card company could have mapped their new credit card activation process to ensure the enclosed instructions clearly sent customers to the correct website or optional toll-free number. (See my previous post, Why ALL touch points count.)

3. Act quickly on feedback
There will still be occasions when a customer discovers a process is broken before you do. When that happens, act quickly to fix it. In my case, I had tested out the webinar link ahead of time and it worked fine. When my client reported the problem, I had to do some research to find out why it didn't work for her. As soon as I found the cause, I emailed the corrected the webinar link, apologized for the inconvenience, and thanked my client for bringing it to my attention. I also revisited my webinar software and learned how I had inadvertently caused the problem so I won’t do it again.