On May 2nd, I called a local lawnmower shop to have my riding mower picked up for its annual service.
Cammie - the lady who runs the service department - told me she'd have one of her drivers pick up my mower on Tuesday the 5th, and that the service process would take 7 to 10 days.
The mower was still sitting in my driveway the night of Wednesday the 6th.
When I called to find out why, Cammie had no idea who I was or what I wanted. She had lost my order.
The mower was finally picked up on Friday the 8th.
When I called the shop Saturday the 16th to check on its status, Cammie told me that her team had not yet started work on my mower, and that it would be at least another three days until I could have it back. Over this two-week period, my grass had literally grown to the middle of my shins.
Frustrated, I asked how she was going to make this right. "What do you want me to do?" Cammie replied. "I've been getting yelled at for this same problem for the last three days."
Look - as a company, you're going to mess up.
A system will break down, or a weakness in your process will be exposed, or a team member will just plain drop the ball.
No company or employee is perfect, so disappointing customers is bound to happen now and then.
But if you don't prepare for that inevitability you're asking for trouble.
Empower your staff to make customers happy when things go wrong. That includes accepting responsibility for the problem, empathizing with customers, and giving them the tools to re-earn a customer's trust.
Then, encourage your employees to manage up. If they know of a problem anywhere in your organization – especially if it affects the customer experience – they should feel free to tell their supervisor.
Cammie's admission that "I've been getting yelled at for this same problem for the last three days" tells me that either she didn't bother to tell her manager about her department's issues or that management did nothing to address her concerns. Develop a culture or a process that makes managing up easy and non-threatening. The information you get from the front lines will be invaluable.
Retaining customers is a constant effort. Most of them will excuse a mistake now and then if you react politely and swiftly to correct it. By preparing for failure, you can salvage the customer relationships your sales and marketing teams work so hard to win.