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Service failure is inevitable. Service recovery, however, is optional.

RedRobinYesterday, my family and I dined at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers in Littleton, Colorado. As is consistently the case, we were seated right away, our server was cheerful, our orders were taken promptly, and our meals were excellent. All that remained, was for our server to present the bill and process payment.

Being that the kids had finished their meals, the three oldest were in the restaurant’s arcade area, and my wife had taken our youngest to the restroom. It was just me at the table, credit card in hand, surrounded by a lot of empty glasses and plates—a clear signal that I was ready to pay the bill and get on with my Saturday. I looked at my iPhone. It was 1:55pm.

After a minute or two, I decided to reposition myself at the table in order to face the kitchen area so that I could make eye contact with my server when she reentered the dining room.

At 2:00pm my server reappeared and approached the table, bill in hand. I mentioned that I was a member of the Red Robin Royalty rewards program at which point she asked for my loyalty card number. I said, “I don’t have the card with me. Can I give you my phone number instead?”

She said, “Yes. But it may take a minute, because there’s only one machine working right now.”

I said that would be okay. (I figured, since I had already waited five minutes, what’s another minute or two?) What happened next was painful.

I watched as my server moved directly to a table of eight that had just been seated and, one by one, answered questions about the menu and accepted their lunch orders.

Nine minutes later, at 2:09pm, she attempted to breezily walk past my table, presumably to submit eight lunch orders before obtaining my Royalty rewards number, when I stopped her, handed her my credit card, and asked that she nix the rewards points and just run the credit card so that I could join my family. (They were now waiting for me in the car in the parking lot.)

Sensing my disappointment, the server sent her manager to the table with my credit card and charge slip. The manager, to her credit, handled the situation flawlessly.

The first thing she did was to acknowledge the problem, saying, “Mr. Curtin, I know you’ve been waiting a long time to pay your bill and that’s unacceptable.”

Next, she accepted responsibility for addressing the problem. Rather than blaming the server or the bottleneck created as a result of having only one working terminal, she accepted responsibility for not being visible saying, “I’ve been in back on the phone dealing with equipment issues when I should have been in the dining room supporting my staff.”

(Note: At my public seminars, some participants will say, “But Steve, how can I accept responsibility for the problem when the problem may be beyond my control?” Here, I reinforce the important distinction between accepting responsibility for the problem itself and accepting responsibility for addressing the problem.

For example, an airline gate agent can’t accept responsibility for the weather that caused a canceled flight and a waiter can’t accept responsibility for a diner’s bankcard that is rejected. In both cases, the best these service providers can do is to address the problem. The gate agent might do so by rebooking a passenger on the next available flight the following morning. This addresses the customer’s problem but, if she was to attend a rehearsal dinner that evening in Chicago, it doesn’t solve it. It’s the same with the waiter. He might suggest running an alternative card but, if the guest doesn’t have another form of payment, even though the waiter appropriately addressed the problem, it remains unresolved.)

Having acknowledged and accepted responsibility for the problem, the Red Robin manager then displayed empathy by saying, “Service is a priority at Red Robin. We don’t ever want our guests to feel as though they’re being held hostage in the restaurant while waiting to pay for their meals.”

Finally, she demonstrated creativity in resolving the service failure by handing me her business card and inviting me and my family to return to the restaurant for a complimentary meal.

In any operation, service failures are inevitable. Service recovery, however, is optional. It requires a choice. Employees can choose to assign blame to people, systems, faulty equipment, or other contributing factors. Or, like the Red Robin manager I encountered, they can acknowledge the problem, accept responsibility for addressing it, display empathy, and demonstrate creativity in resolving the problem to the customer’s satisfaction. And if they can resolve it to the customer’s delight, then that’s a bonus.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin (AMACOM Books, June 2013) or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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