Does Your Culture Stick When Times Are Tough?

When something goes wrong with a customer, do you take the opportunity to stand up, “Say Sorry,” and make things right?

A JetBlue flight attendant has recently been in the news, and the jury’s still out – if this was a shining moment for Jet Blue. This flight attendant stole the spotlight when, in a moment of frustration, he engaged a passenger in a very public argument. The plane had just landed at JFK Airport in New York, so as the argument escalated, the flight attendant grabbed a beer off the beverage cart, deployed the plane’s emergency chute and took a slide out of the plane. (Here’s how CNN tells the story.)

What’s interesting in this case is that the flight attendant wanted a public apology; a sincere apology from the customer whom the flight attendant felt had dishonored him. Not so far off from how we feel as customers when a company makes a mistake then doesn’t do the work to repair the severed emotional connection.

In this Jet Blue case no one got the apology they desired. That’s not how it goes in beloved companies.  Beloved companies see the apology as an important “peace process” in repairing the emotional connection with customers when things go wrong.

Beloved Companies Decide to “Say Sorry”

Here’s a story to inspire saying “sorry” well…from Zane’s Cycles in Connecticut. A customer was paying on layaway for a special bike she was going to give her husband for a surprise Valentine’s Day gift. Greg, a Zane’s employee, was supposed to display that particular bike in the window of the store on Valentine’s Day so the customer could stroll past the bike store with her husband on their way to a romantic dinner. Things didn’t work out as planned, however, because Greg forgot to display the bike in the window that day.

Zane’s felt horrible about the mistake and apologized to the customer by delivering the bike to her house and forgiving the final payment. And Greg, the salesperson who forgot to display the bike, wrote Chris Zane an apology letter and enclosed a personal check for half the cost of the bike (which Zane never cashed). Talk about a wow moment! Greg was willing to be out a week’s pay to right the wrong.

Greg works in an environment at Zane’s where he is encouraged to do the right thing. And Zane and Greg both clearly understand the value of a lifetime customer. The recovery of this one customer, while memorable, is not an isolated act of customer heroism, but a usual part of this (and any) beloved company. The cultural instinct to do the right thing and repair broken relationships is genuine and caring.

PS Greg still works for Zane’s!

Is your staff clear on how to do what’s right? Do they know they have permission to act quickly and remedy relationships? Do your employees know what they are allowed to do? Should do? And what’s really at stake when they are talking to and working with you primary assets—customers!

Ask around, see if your employees know what customer heroics are possible or allowed. If they have no idea or it varies, fill in the gaps. Think about what you can do for customers and provide examples and ideas for your employees to follow. Make it very clear what the employees are allowed to do to make customers happy—even go as far as naming a dollar amount that’s allowable to spend.

For example, the front desk clerks at the Four Seasons hotel (even the part-time staff) have up to $5,000 to spend on each customer incident to make someone happy. I know that may sound like a big amount, but keep in mind your customer lifetime value and how much you spend to acquire a new customer.

Creating a culture that empowers your employees will ultimately lead to positive relationships with lifetime customers. Customers will recognize an empowered employee by their confidence in handling everything from the basics to resolving more complex issues or problems. Gaining lifetime customers will be worth the time it takes to educate your employees on their options. And, like Chris Zane, who forgave a debt due to an error made in his shop, modeling good resolution technique will teach your staff how to be genuine and effective ambassadors for your company. 

Want to learn about other tools to help you earn customers who drive the success and growth of your business? Pick up a copy of: “I Love You More Than My Dog: Five Decisions That Drive Extreme Customer Loyalty in Good Times and Bad.”

4 comments to " Does Your Culture Stick When Times Are Tough? "

  • This is just sound and simple stuff to embrace! And it makes a world of difference in how customers experience the brand. Jeanne, we need to shout your advice from outer space! :)

  • Hi Jeanne,

    i just found you today on Twitter and received this article via tweet.
    it’s fabulous and fits right in with our celebration of Mistake Management Month. We’re collecting stories about mastering mistake management. Would you mind if I share the one about Zane Cycles with a link back to back to the article?


    PS The Jet Blue story is a puzzling one. Our version is still in draft form because…well…we keep waiting/hoping for a different ending.

  • Hi Jan,
    Please do share the Zane’s Cycles story. It’s brilliant. The last chapter of my new book: “I Love You More than My Dog: Five Decisions that Drive Extreme Loyalty in Good Times and Bad” is all about apologies…Let me know…I’ll send you more case studies.

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