My baseball coach at MIT, Fran O’Brien, reminded us that we will all make errors. The ball will go between our legs. A pop fly will get lost in the sun and fall safely to the ground. But he did not tolerate mental errors. If you missed a sign or failed to hustle, you received a stern look and quick reprimand, and, at times, a hard seat on the bench.
Coach O’Brien’s message of personal responsibility still resonates powerfully with me when working with customers and clients. Sometimes we make mistakes. However, our success depends more on how we handle these errors and complaints then on the errors themselves. In a way, errors and slights, even if imagined or perceived, are gifts. They provide opportunities to build trust and exceed expectations.
Years ago, I had my oil changed by a local firm in Athens, Georgia. At the end, the young technician reviewed the list of completed services, which included checking and correcting the tire pressure. I had been nearby throughout and had not seen them check the tires, so I asked to confirm if they had done this. No, they had not. It was checked on the list, but they had not actually completed this task.
They backed my car into the service bay once again and checked the tire pressure. It was low. However, the air compressor on site did not work. I asked if they had another compressor near-by. The technician said no. I asked if he had a suggestion as to where I could fill my tires. He said, “no, but if you just drive down the road here for a while, I’m sure you will find another tire and oil change place that could do it for you.”
So that is what I did—never to return.
I pulled into a place on Broad Street called University Car Wash. A young guy came up to my window with a clipboard. I said, “I don’t need a car wash or oil change, but may I check and adjust my tire pressure?”
He said, “Sure” and directed me over to the service bays. He checked and adjusted each tire himself. At the end, he said, “Thank you for stopping in. Just so you know, we are having an oil change and car wash special for the rest of the summer. Next time you need an oil change, please consider us.”
This young man earned my trust, and his firm earned my business for years (until they closed 🙁 ). I wrote his manager a note to relate this story and commend his employee.
I wrote another note, this one to the owner of the first business, to share with him my experience with his firm. Compressors break. Mistakes happen. But his firm lost my trust by misleading me, and it lost my business by failing to help me solve a simple, practical problem.
What could have happened differently? Any of several responses could have kept me loyal to that firm.
- “I am so sorry about this. Let me help you find a service station near-by with a working compressor.”
- “I am sorry. Perhaps my colleague or manager can help us with this.”
- “Sir, please accept my apologies. No excuses. And please let us pay for this oil change.”
At the end of the day, customers and clients will cut you slack if you are responsive and respectful. Customers will continue to work with you if you apologize and demonstrate awareness, humility, and ownership. Ultimately, customers can become ambassadors for your business if you help them solve their problems, even if they relate to mistakes made by your firm.
*Part of this post appeared in an “At the Office” column I published in the Athens Banner Herald in 2008.