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When United Airlines bungled the handling of a passenger's smashed guitar last year, it received more bad press than it bargained for. WestJet Airways will probably earn a much different reputation for the way one of its employees handled a similar incident. The instrument's owner was performing at a music festival that very evening, recalls WestJet public relations manager Robert Palmer, and neither his suitcase nor guitar had arrived.

"He was due onstage within an hour or two," recalls Mr. Palmer, and when a WestJet employee found the instrument, he "grabbed the guitar, jumped into a cab, drove to the festival, ran backstage and gave him the guitar, minutes before he was to go onstage."

That kind of recovery after a foul-up can generate a far more positive impression of a company than simply providing good service, experts say.

"Before, you're just another place they're doing business with," says Jeff Mowatt, a customer-service strategist based in Calgary and author of Becoming a Customer Service Icon in 90 Minutes a Month. "But now they're saying, 'You're unique, you're remarkable.' And they'll talk about it. You've actually created a more loyal situation."

Ottawa-based consultant Shaun Belding agrees. While it seems like a paradox, he said, "sometimes by recovering from a failure you can create stronger word-of-mouth than by just providing good customer service."

Yet dealing well with customer-service issues is a challenge for many companies. Some take too long to get back to a customer, said Mr. Belding, not realizing that discovering and acknowledging a problem even before the customer does goes a long way to earning back respect. "There is virtually no response you can provide one to three weeks after the fact that will win you that customer back," he points out in his blog.

Using social media, such as Twitter, as a stand-in for the customer-service department is another misstep. "(Companies) monitor Twitter looking for people complaining and they respond to it," he said. "You should fix it before somebody gets so angry. Why wait for somebody to broadcast it in a public forum?"

For Mr. Mowatt, too many companies are fixated on the estimated 2 per cent of customers who are dishonest, perhaps trying to obtain freebies by complaining. He has three words of advice for them, he said: "Get over it. It's the cost of doing business. But unfortunately what they do is treat the 98 per cent of good, honest people out there like they're potential criminals, so they do the minimum. They fix the problem but don't go to the next level, which is fix the relationship."

Both experts agree that perhaps the two key elements of customer-service recovery are training and trust. Companies have to train staff to listen to customer problems with empathy, and empower them to provide solutions.

"A lot of companies are afraid to do that, " said Mr. Belding, "to say 'You make the call.'" Yet, he added, "Without exception, in the really successful companies out there, the management group will support their employees to the wall. And you can sense it in those employees. They're not afraid to a make decision."

Some companies, meanwhile, find that bringing a mistake to the company's broader attention can show teed-off customers that they are being taken seriously.

In Toronto, Jack Vanderkooy, chief executive officer of DUCA Financial Services, said that, while staff at the credit union's 12 branches usually deal with problems, "I want to make sure that when a member comes to us, they have access."

When an elderly woman called him to complain that her statements were not arriving, he said, "I told her that we're offering them electronically to our members now, to save paper, postage and money, and hence create more profits for our members to share. And she said, 'But I don't have a computer.'"

Mr. Vanderkooy offered to have her branch manger print out the statements and put them in the mail for her. While his caller was happy with the solution, her concern "allows me to address bigger issues in the company," he said. "That one complaint can generate across-the-board performance improvement."

Perhaps it is not surprising that companies such as WestJet and DUCA are heavily focused on customer care. At WestJet, 86 per cent of its 7,800 employees own shares in the airline. It refers to its passengers as guests, and maintains a team of people constantly checking up on customer experience.

At DUCA, excellent service "is engrained in who we are," said Mr. Vanderkooy, With assets of $1-billion, the credit union is owned by its 35,000 members, "and we treat them as owners," he said.

Any firm, however, can provide world-class customer service by instilling a healthy corporate culture. At both WestJet and DUCA, for example, staff are encouraged to share stories of how they dealt with a customer service gaffe. "When you get a whole bunch of stories of what you do, you get a culture focused not only on fixing gaffes but on preventing them," suggested Mr. Mowatt. "Everybody learns from it."

"A lot of time where customer service training is not successful is when that culture doesn't exist," said Mr. Belding. "If it's not something from the top that's lived and breathed, you can make a change for a short period of time, but it's just not going to last."

Customer experience dos and don'ts

  • Acknowledge the problem – and quickly. “Companies often try to gloss over or ignore it,” says Mr. Mowatt, “but it’s actually quite an opportunity to strengthen customer service.”
  • Be generous. Unhappy customers have not only been disappointed with their purchase but must spend time and money to deal with it. “I encourage people to give them something for the hassle factor,” said Mr. Mowatt.
  • Don’t ignore anybody. “Just because somebody is younger, or not well dressed, don’t dismiss or second guess them,” says Shaun Belding. They may become loyal customers for life.
  • If the customer is emotional and upset, don’t respond in kind. “Often the reason for their frustration is not so much the problem but the way employees respond to it,” says Mr. Belding.
  • Unsure about how to make up for a bad experience? Employees only need to ask themselves how they would want to be treated if they were the customer in that particular circumstance.

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