Service Recovery After A Failure

In my inbox I received the communication from United Airlines about the changes they are making in response to their recent service failure. I thought it was well written, so I though this would be a good time to review one of my favorite topics. Every organization fails their customers at some point. Whether it be an unplanned EHR downtime, or dragging a paying customer off of a plane in a manner that upsets passengers.

Once the actual event has concluded there is a set of steps an organization should take to recover its standing with customers and to continually improve. These basic steps are the same for an IT team or an airline. In my opinion, United Airline’s initial response to recent events their response was terrible. Their subsequent efforts are on target. They followed the process that I have championed within my organization.

  1. Accept Full Responsibility: Accept full responsibility for not living up to your promise. Sure, the actions of others may have contributed to the incident. But, blaming others is deflection and not ownership. Ownership is empowering because it gives you the ability to fix the problem.I actually prefer to avoid apologies. I reserve apologies for personal failures and actions that are true negligence. Instead, I prefer to thank customers for their patience and their feedback and to let them know that we will work tirelessly to improve. A thank-you elevates a customer, it is a gift.
  2. Root Cause Analysis and Systemic Change: In United’s recent letter to customers they asked “How did this happen, and how can we do our best to ensure this never happens again?” Bingo. One needs to understand why it happened and make systemic changes to prevent recurrence. Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a well understood science. Every CIO should understand RCA basics and they should have people on the team that are RCA experts. Finally, it is important to communicate to your internal customers the changes that you have made.
  3. Cultural Assessment: The extent to which the United CEO understands the cultural aspect of this situation is impressive. As the leader his language and the behavior will be reflected by the 87,000 United employees. While the team closest to the work should complete the root cause analysis, the leader must reflect with the leadership team regarding how organizational culture contributed to the event. Are financial constraints putting pressure on employees to move to quickly and skip steps? Is the lack of investment in employee development keeping people from meeting their full potential? Are leaders openly making negative comments about customers they should revere?

How does your organization handle service failures? What would you add to this approach?

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