The Gist

  • Adopt a customer service recovery framework. Having a solution system in place is key to the quick resolution of customer complaints.

  • Try the MAMA method. This recovery technique encourages listening, acknowledging customer feelings, collaboration and following up.

  • Embrace the power of effective problem resolution. With this method, you can turn an unhappy customer into your company’s fiercest ally.

When a customer is breathing down your neck or firing up the telephone line with frustration, irritation, disappointment — possibly venting the dreaded, “I’ll never work with you again!” — the thing to keep in mind is this: 

If you can successfully and empathetically resolve customers' problems, they are more likely to become a loyal, engaged promoter of your brand, ready to sing your praises online and off, than if nothing had ever gone wrong in the first place. 

This is called “the Service Recovery Paradox,” and it’s as tried-and-true a psychological finding as any in our world of business. Proving that your company is more than a fair-weather friend, that it can be counted on even when things go sideways, is a powerful builder of business. 

So now that you know the upside, should you intentionally introduce errors that you can then solve and come off like a hero? If you’re in the hospitality industry, say, should you increase the number of keycards that are misprogrammed so that you can intervene for your guests and save the day? 

Well, you probably don’t need me to tell you this, but no. Plenty of mishaps will raise their heads organically, in the course of any business day; the last thing you need is to increase their number artificially. 

What you do need to do, though is to become a master in the discipline I call Customer Service Recovery. Every customer-focused organization has a framework for service recovery, for how to turn around unhappy customers

For example, here are three frameworks for Customer Service Recovery:

  • The Marriott service recovery framework spells L-E-A-R-N (Listen, Empathize, Apologize, React, Notify).
  • The triple-Five Star Broadmoor hotel has a framework that (more or less) spells H-E-A-R-T (Hear, Empathize, Apologize, Respond, Take action and follow up).
  • The framework used by Starbucks is abbreviated as L-A-T-T-E (Listen, Acknowledge, Thank, Take action, Explain—how adorable and on-brand is that?!). 

Related Article: Combining Self-Service, Chat and Phone Support: A Winning Strategy for Customer Service

The MAMA Recovery Method: Turn Critics Into Advocates

Here in brief, are the steps involved in what I call the MAMA service recovery method. We’ll dig into each of these in a moment. 

M: Make time to listen. 

A: Acknowledge — and, if it's called for, Apologize. 

M: Have a Meeting of minds. 

A: Act and follow up. (I snuck in that “follow up” because I felt that “MAMAF” would hardly be an attractive acronym.)

Digging Into the Details

Make Time to Listen

• Immediately stop whatever you’re doing.

• Listen with your ears, your eyes and your body. Don’t interrupt the customer with questions or explanations.

• Only after listening quietly, strive to learn more about the situation by probing for what the customer is specifically upset about.

Acknowledge and Apologize

• Acknowledge the situation and, if called for (by which I mean the customer feels an apology is warranted, not necessarily that you do), apologize sincerely.

Learning Opportunities

• Even if you have no reason to feel that you’re at fault, you should convey to the customer that you recognize and regret what they’ve gone through.

• Be sure to make it a real apology and not a fakey-fake apology, like “I’m sorry if you feel that way.” (Delivering a bogus apology like this, through gritted teeth, is probably worse than not apologizing at all.)

(Have a) Meeting of Minds

• Align yourself with the customer’s expectations for what a solution would look like. Determine what would be acceptable to them and practical (or even possible) for you to make happen. (Include your customer in the process and remain open to a different vision of a successful solution emerging at this point.)

• Once you have a match, spell out the agreed-on solution, as you understand it.

• Commit to exactly what you will do to resolve the issue and by when.

Act! and Follow Up

• Take care of the issue as promised.

• Follow up with anyone to whom you’ve assigned all or part of the resolution.

• Follow up with the customer to ensure all is well.

• Later on, examine what went wrong with an eye toward identifying negative patterns, systemic issues, and choke points (for example, repeated complaints of long lines on Tuesday afternoons or of a website that loads slowly, but only on weekend nights), and strive to learn from the error, using this new knowledge, where applicable, to refine future company operations and training.

Related Article: What Defines World-Class Customer Service Now and How to Get There

Mastering Service Recovery: Transform Your Business 

Service recovery is an essential thing to get right, and it will take time. (It’s almost like a whole different business discipline from working with customers when things are going well and everyone’s feeling cheery and well cared for!) But it’s very powerful once you master it — so powerful, in fact, that I’d argue it’s transformational. Master it and you’ll be retaining existing customers and turning them into (in many cases) true ambassadors for your business. You’ll also enjoy how the word of mouth spreads in a more positive manner, from here forward. Finally, you’ll rid yourself of (or of most of) the fear factor that can grip you when you have to face down a tricky situation without being truly equipped to do so . And, as they say, watch this space for more secrets of stellar customer service.