According to contemporary wisdom (in other words, according to what I hear), customers who experience service failures followed by effective service recoveries actually become more satisfied and loyal than customers who experience no failures at all. This is called the service recovery paradox, and academic research suggests that it’s not as common or consistent as we might think. Many customers who experience solid service recoveries still end up less happy than their problem-free counterparts. Service failures are bad, after all. Otherwise, we’d call them pleasant surprises. Nonetheless, service recovery is still an important part of the customer experience. Paradox or not, there’s value in making things less bad than they were. Unfortunately, each service recovery interaction provides another opportunity for failure.

Here’s an example:

I recently traveled to the West Coast for a few meetings, and I decided to try an alternative airline to get a better in-flight experience. The flight out was great. I particularly enjoyed the seat-back entertainment console, which also accepted food and drink orders — sparing passengers from bathroom-blocking, elbow-crushing carts. On my way back to the airport three days later, I was excited to kick back, watch TV, and order a couple of drinks at my leisure. It was a Friday afternoon. Work wasn’t happening (no judgment, please). Then things went south when the entertainment system broke. I couldn’t watch TV, and I had to wait for a flight attendant to take drink orders. Boo hoo, I know. As Louie CK said about this kind of complaint, “Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.” Still, the airline didn’t deliver the experience it had promised. Service failed.

The flight attendants were quick to apologize, which was a good first step. Then they said that they’d work with “corporate” to figure out how to make up for the problem. An hour or two later, they explained that passengers would get partial refunds posted to their “accounts.” That raised a few questions. Do I have an account? Did I need to create one? What is the refund going to be? When and how will I see it? I didn’t ask. A few days later (after the flight landed safely and on time), I received an email from the airline. A $20 credit could be applied to my next flight, as long as it was within 12 months. The service recovery attempt had become another service failure.

Why did this attempt fall short, and what can other firms learn from it? Here are a few things that come to mind:

  1. Don’t skimp. Match or exceed lost value. The airline’s service recovery attempt failed, in part, because it underestimated the value of the lost in-flight entertainment console. The console represented the biggest differentiator between the experience delivered by this airline and the experiences delivered by its larger competitors. It was worth more than $20. 
  2. Don’t contradict your brand. Make relevant offers. By going straight for financial compensation, the airline made the experience about money. That would have made sense for a low-cost carrier, like Southwest. But this airline positions itself around the hip, innovative experience it provides. It could have reinforced its brand by offering other related experiences as compensation, such as a gift cards for music or movies.
  3. Don’t speak corporate. Speak human. The airline made the situation worse by using company and industry language that confused passengers and put too much emphasis on the mysterious “corporate” entity working behind the scenes. Flight attendants could have improved the experience significantly by communicating clearly and directly — yet another opportunity to reinforce the brand as being different from that of the average big airline.
  4. Don’t give bills. Give gifts. The airline’s service recovery offer required passengers to purchase additional flights to get value. $20 for spending $600. That’s not a gift. It’s a bill. The offer would have gone down much more smoothly without the strings attached.

To be clear, this was no tragedy. The airline got the experience mostly right by providing safe, on-time travel. But it still failed to deliver the experience it had promised. Then it failed in its attempt to recover, compounding the initial problem and undermining the brand in the process. While not tragic for me, that kind of approach could prove tragic for the company.