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.


How to Quickly Improve Customer Service by Slowing Down

The CEO was anxious to start training.

He knew customer service wasn't what it needed to be and was hoping for a quick fix. So he hired me to conduct some training. 

His impatience showed in our very first meeting—he bristled when I insisted on first spending time with his customer service team before putting together the training. In the CEO's mind, there was no time for this.

It was a good thing I did. The training was completely unnecessary. After spending less than an hour with the customer service team, I understood the real issue. 

The team leader and the CEO would have spotted it, too, if they had only slowed down just a moment. The challenge is slowing down is a counterintuitive way to go fast.

Man gesturing to slow down.

Why going fast slows us down

Going too fast can make customer service worse, not better.

Harried customer service leaders don't stop and define the problem they are trying to solve. In other words, what does success look like? How will you measure it?

The CEO I described at the start of this post initially told me that he wanted me to deliver customer service training because his customer service reps were unfriendly. 

There were two red flags here. 

The first is "friendliness" is not something you train. You don't learn to smile in a training class. When employees aren't friendly, it's either because they aren't friendly people to begin with and shouldn't have been hired, or there's something that's crushing the friendliness out of them.

The second red flag is the CEO couldn't describe what success looked like. It was only when I pressed him that he admitted his real concern was sales. His customer service reps answered product questions and converted inquiries into orders. They averaged a 33 percent sales conversion rate, and the CEO saw a big opportunity if they could get that rate up to 35 percent.

It's difficult to improve if you can't define what you want to improve. 

I was lucky that I was able to get the CEO to slow down a bit and define the problem. This isn't always the case. Here are some actual statements I've heard from leaders who were too anxious to move quickly:

  • "I want us to deliver world-class customer service."

  • "My managers need to be more managerial."

  • "I want to be like the Apple Store."

The problem with all of those statements is they are unclear. And in their big hurry to throw a solution at the situation, these leaders will almost certainly choose the wrong path like asking for generic training.

Sending people to unnecessary training wastes a lot of time.

How going slow can speed us up

I like to use a simple quick fix checklist tool whenever I'm asked to diagnose an employee performance challenge. The tool examines four key questions:

  1. What is the gap between existing and desired performance?

  2. Can the desired performance realistically be achieved?

  3. Are employees aware of what behaviors they need to change?

  4. Do any obvious performance barriers exist?

The checklist helped me discover what was holding back sales conversion rates after spending less than an hour with frontline employees.

  • Question 1: The performance gap was two percentage points

  • Question 2: The desired performance was sometimes achieved, just not consistently

  • Question 3: Employees were aware they were sometimes unfriendly and unhelpful

  • Question 4: The employees quickly pointed out an obvious performance barrier

The team had a flat schedule, meaning staffing levels remained the same throughout each day. But that's not how their call volume came in. A lot more calls came in on a Monday morning than they received on a Wednesday afternoon.

The result was long hold times during peak periods. And when the reps knew a lot of people were waiting on hold, they became fearful of angering those customers. So they sped up the calls, which made them come across as abrupt and prevented them from closing more sales.

My client changed the schedule to better meet customer demand. They did have to hire one person, but it was well worth it. After 30 days, the team's sales conversion jumped from 33 percent to 45 percent! 

This is not an unusual situation. Here are more examples of quick fixes I helped customer service leaders discover by spending just 1-4 hours using this tool:

  • A contact center reduced outsourced calls by 50 percent in just one week.

  • Survey responses increased by 600 percent in one month.

  • Mystery shopping scores improved at a hotel from 78 to 94 percent in one month.

Quick Fix Resources

There's a quote that's widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Research shows he probably didn't say it, but it's still an inspiring quote:

If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first three sharpening the axe.

Solving customer service problems should be approached the same way. Spend a little time up front analyzing and understanding the issue, and you'll likely find some very quick fixes.

Here are a few resources to help you:


Could Distraction Be Costing Your Company Dearly?

Advertising disclosure: This blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

The bank's customer service rep was distracted.

He was responding to emails in between phone calls. The problem was he'd get halfway into an email and then the next call would come in. It took a second for him to shift his focus to the caller. 

At the end of the call, he'd hurry back to the email. He'd skim the email as best as he could and then hurriedly type his response in hopes of finishing it before the next call came in.

One particular email was from a customer inquiring about his loan balance. The rep looked it up and saw the balance was $15,000. In his haste, he left off a zero. 

His email informed the customer that the loan balance was just $1,500. 

Boss presenting to a group of distracted employees.

Distracted By Design

Customer service reps everywhere are chronically distracted.

They’re balancing multiple priorities. They often work in noisy office environments. The typical contact center rep must juggle five to seven different software programs on two or more computer monitors just to serve a customer. And they’re barraged by messages on email, chat, and even their personal devices in between.

To top it off, many contact center reps work like the bank employee in the story above. They are asked to respond to email or another written channel in between handling phone calls in an effort to eke out every last drop of productivity.

It's thought to be efficient, but it isn't. Customer service reps working in this setup are often less productive and are prone to costly mistakes. For example, the bank ultimately had to honor the erroneous loan balance and write off the $13,500 error.

Here's a demonstration that can help you experience what's happening to distracted employees. The image below contains a number of circles and squares. Try to count the number of each shape as quickly as possible.

image of circles and squares.

Let's try this again with a twist. 

Count the total number of circles and squares by alternating between counting each shape. In other words, count one circle and then count one square. Then count the next circle, count the next square, and so on.

Ready? Count.

Image of circles and squares.

How did it go?

Most people take longer to count the shapes and are more prone to making errors. Which is exactly what happens when you ask employees to switch back and forth between tasks all day.

The High Cost of Distraction

Distraction can cost a company far more than the few dollars saved by cramming in some extra work in between calls.

Another customer service leader told me about the cost of distraction at his company the same time I heard about the $13,500 bank error. This one was even worse.

A telecom customer had emailed to ask if he had won a promotional contest. He had not won, so the customer service rep started typing an email to politely tell the customer he didn't win.

But the customer service rep was answering emails in between calls. And the rep was distracted. So the rep's actual email read, "You did win."

There was a kerfuffle. The company tried to claim it was an honest mistake. The customer sued, and the company eventually agreed to a six figure settlement.

You might be tempted to maximize productivity by having your agents juggle multiple assignments all day. Before you do, think about the potential costs:

  • Expensive errors caused by distraction.

  • Decreased productivity caused by constantly shifting attention.

  • Decreased service quality caused by a lack of customer focus.

Take Action With This Experiment

In my book, Getting Service Right, I constantly search for counterintuitive solutions to vexing employee performance challenges. In Chapter Seven, the book explores reasons why employees often fail to pay attention.

Here's one example:

I once worked with a medical device manufacturer that had its customer service reps answer emails in between phone calls. The stakes were pretty high—the company's products were used in life-saving medical procedures.

We ran a simple experiment. Instead of having reps handle phones and email, we divided the reps into two teams. One team handled phones, the other handled email.

The number of reps on each team could easily be changed throughout the day. If phone volume was high, more reps could join the phone queue. When phone volume decreased, a few reps could be re-assigned to email.

This extra focus quickly had a big impact. Both phone and email quality increased because reps were able to give the customer in front of them their full attention.

But counterintuitively, productivity increased in both channels!

You can test this yourself by running the same experiment for a week. Involve your agents—let them know what you're testing. You can even run a test group and keep another group working the old way so you can compare the results.


Lessons Learned from Writing My First Customer Service Book

Note: The following is the preface from my new book, Getting Service Right: Overcoming the Hidden Obstacles to Outstanding Customer Service. It's the second edition of a book called Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It.

The author, Jeff Toister, holding up his first book,  Service Failure .

The original book was published in 2012 and went out of print in 2016. It was my first as an author, and it provided valuable and unexpected customer service lessons that I've since applied to other books I've written, including The Service Culture Handbook and Customer Service Tip of the Week

One lesson was the title itself. 

I wrote the book to help customer service leaders solve a vexing challenge: helping their employees to consistently deliver outstanding service. I imagined a title like Service Failure would instantly resonate with those leaders, and to a large extent, it did. The book sold reasonably well over the four years it was in print and received many positive reviews.

Yet I overlooked something pretty big—my primary customer. Service Failure taught me that the most important customer for a business book is an influencer who shares the book with others. It might be someone who recommends the book to a colleague or uses it to start a book club at work. Or it could be a leader who buys multiple copies and hands them out to their team so everyone can read it and work on the concepts together. 

I soon heard the same feedback again and again: "It's a great read, but there's no way I'm giving someone a book called Service Failure!"

The title that I thought was so catchy actually hurt sales! The experience reminded me that, in customer service, we can't fall too in love with our own ideas. We have to realize that our customers may view things differently, and we need to understand them as best as we can if we want to serve them successfully.

Which brings me to another lesson. 

The original book was literally a service failure. It had a binding problem that caused the pages to fall out as soon as the reader got to page 12! 

I discovered the issue when I received my author's copies from the publisher about six weeks before the official publication date. I quickly alerted my editor, but by then, defective books had already been shipped to retailers. The publisher reprinted the books it still had on hand but decided not to recall the books that had already been distributed. I distinctly remember my publisher saying, "Do you know how much that would cost?!" when he defended the decision not to be more proactive.

The publisher did agree to replace damaged books at no cost if readers contacted the publisher's customer service team directly, but that required the reader to be aware of the offer. So I shared the news as best as I could via my blog, through social media, and with friends and family. My mother-in-law was one of the first people to contact the publisher in an attempt to get a defective book replaced, and she promptly got the run-around from a misinformed customer service representative.

A reader might try to return the book to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but there was a good chance the replacement book would also be defective. I once ordered ten copies of Service Failure from Amazon, and five out of ten were damaged. Amazon promptly sent a replacement order, and three of the five replacements were also defective! These types of repeated problems were a sad irony that made the service failure even worse. 

The situation left me feeling powerless and angry. I know many people decided it just wasn't worth their time to fix the problem. Meanwhile, it was my name, not the publisher's, on the front of the book. I'm sure that created a negative impression for some readers, even though I had no control over the book's printing or distribution.

The experience helped me empathize with what frontline customer service employees go through every day. These employees usually aren't the ones who make defective products, fail to deliver services, or intentionally decide to skimp on quality in an effort to save money. Often under-empowered and under-appreciated, these professionals face their customers' anger and try to make amends.

Getting Service Right represents a second chance to get it right. The new title is more positive, the book-binding issue has been resolved, and I've added new research and insights I discovered after completing the first edition. 

It's often said we never get a second chance to make a first impression. While that's true, we can try to recover from a service failure. And we can learn from each experience, so we can make a great first impression with the next customer we serve. So whether you read the original book and had the pages fall out, or you are discovering this book for the first time, I hope this edition is helpful to you.

The new book, Getting Service Right, is available on Amazon and 800-CEO-READ.