What Now? How to Recover When You Can’t Deliver

Now matter how efficient your organization is, there will come a time when you simply can’t deliver as planned. It might be your fault, and it might be completely out of your control. Either way, it will happen.

Unfortunately, customers generally don’t care about the cause. So what if the weather messed up your supply chain, if a key employee quit at exactly the wrong time, or if a mechanical failure derailed your production schedule?

When you don’t deliver as promised, you’ve got a problem.

What you do now can mean the difference between keeping a customer and losing them. How will you recover?

Finally heading home!

I recently encountered a recovery situation on a weekend trip with my parents. At 78, air travel is becoming more challenging for them, so we agreed to meet in Atlanta and travel together through Boston for a family reunion in Maine.

We booked tickets on US Airways with a plane change in each direction, a total of 4 flights for our round trip journey. In the end, US Airways was 0-4 on the delivery score, having cancelled, re-booked and rerouted us (more than once) before giving up and putting us on a direct Delta flight.

This happened both ways and only one travel delay was weather related. The rest seemed to be self-inflicted, with cancellations due to short staff and other problems derailing the system.

My father, like many typical customers, kept saying, “I don’t understand why they’re treating us this way.” I had to explain, “It’s not you, it’s them. US Air is having problems, but they’re trying to make it right.”

And they were.

To their credit, employees who felt frustrated by the situation provided pleasant and helpful service. They they didn’t complain, they did what needed to be done to get us to our destination and back again.

Unfortunately for US Airways (soon to be absorbed into American Airlines), our travel on Delta probably netted a loss. On top of the financial cost, sending us to a competitor offered a chance for us to experience a different quality of service. The Delta flights were on time, and that trumped the more up-to-date gate areas we enjoyed while waiting for US Airways flights.

With a 0-4 record, I’m not sure I’ll book travel on US Airways again any time soon. My dad won’t. But they did win a few points for effort, providing some good business lessons in the process:

Keep your game face on. Don’t let you frustration show when dealing with customers. Be pleasant and maintain a proactive demeanor. That will help preserve the customer relationship for future encounters.

Accept failure. Sometimes you simply can’t deliver. US Airways could have kept trying to get us to our destination, extending our travel misery. Instead, they recognized when it was time to regroup. They accepted failure and moved on.

Make it right. When you lose revenue (or even some profit), doing the right thing is memorable and will benefit you later. Find out what your customers need and deliver it graciously. Keep customer needs front-and-center to create reputational equity.

Partner proactively. A preexisting relationship between Delta and US Airways made it possible to rebook us. A little co-opetition can benefit both parties when trouble arises. How can you secure a Plan B before you need it?

Think long term. While you may lose the immediate sale, sending a customer to a competitor could actually save you in the long term. It’s a risk, but taking it has better odds that the alternative because you’ve demonstrated your professionalism and concern for the customer’s well-being.

Air travel certainly isn’t the glamorous affair it was 50 years ago, and problems are to be expected. This holds true in many industries, both those serving consumers and B2B concerns.

The best option is always to avoid trouble. When you can’t, do your best to handle it well.

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