The Value of Failing Your Customers

We’ve all experienced failure at different times in our lives. As children we weren’t successful at convincing our parents to let us subsist solely on junk food, and during our school years we didn’t get perfect scores on every exam (and maybe even bombed a few of them!). We don’t win every game we play, not everyone we ask out on a date says “yes,” and not all of us are good cooks.

Failures creep into our professional lives, too. Whether you’re a salesperson, a recruiter, or a business owner, you will definitely fail one day (if you haven’t already!). It happens to everyone—even to the most successful people. After all, when he was 30, Steve Jobs was actually booted from the company he’d founded. (Fortunately for him—and for those of us who use touch-screen mobile devices—he returned to Apple a few years later.)

What distinguishes successful people, though, is their ability to learn from their failures. When they pick themselves up, take a careful look at what just happened, and then try again, that’s when failure can lead to success.

How we learn (or don’t learn) from mistakes carries over into all of our relationships—and business relationships are no exception. Your customers constantly evaluate you on multiple criteria, and how you recover from your missteps is one of them.

Disney values the customer experience so seriously that it’s actually formalized a company-wide strategy for fixing customer-service problems. Called H.E.A.R.D., it encourages employees to “hear,” “empathize,” “apologize,” “resolve,” and “diagnose.” The successful implementation of such customer-oriented practices has played a large part in helping Disney develop its current reputation for excellent service.

Marketer Mike Schoultz describes an event that anyone who’s traveled has likely encountered at some point: a subpar hotel experience. He made his concerns known to the management, who immediately set out not only to fix the problem but to do whatever it could to improve and strengthen the hotel’s relationship with him. The result? Not only did Schoultz have a terrific three-day stay at the hotel, he ended up telling others about his great experience. The hotel came out ahead by keeping Schoultz’s business—and possibly even winning new business from people in his sphere of influence.

Each customer-service interaction is a unique situation, of course, but because the possibility for failure is ever-present, customer-service experts nearly always stress the importance of being able to acknowledge mistakes. “Know how to apologize,” says one. Admit mistakes, says another. Another points out that “a quick way to lose a client forever is not admitting that you are at fault and not fixing your own mistakes.”

It all boils down to this: you’re not perfect, and your customers know that. (Not because they expect you to fail, but because being imperfect is part of the human condition—and they’re humans, too!) Obviously, you should do your utmost to deliver the best customer service you possibly can. At the same time, though, you should be aware of the fact that no matter how diligent you are, you will let your customers down at some point.

So be ready for that moment. Be ready to acknowledge your mistakes and fix them so well that you not only resolve the problem but provide even better service than your client expected. That’s how you recover from failure—and how to keep your customers and build their loyalty.