Typically, when a service failure occurs, a customer will
expect to be compensated for the inconvenience in the form of
any combination of refunds, credits, discounts or apologies.
The success of such customer service recovery efforts is
determined by the individual’s expectations and perceptions of
the organization. Two key elements impact any effort to restore
customer satisfaction: the strength of customer relationships
and the severity of service failure.
Service failure: Service performance that fails to meet
The strength of the customer relationship with the organization
prior to a customer service failure has a buffering effect in
the event of failure. Research suggests that customers who
expect the relationship to continue actually have lower service
recovery expectations, and in turn, are more satisfied with
customer service performance after recovery.
While this may seem counterintuitive at first glance, consider
the expectations of customers with a stronger relationship with
the organization. A customer who does not have much commitment
to the organization tends to be more transaction-focused and
expects immediate service recovery when a particular transaction
fails to meet expectations.
Conversely, a customer with strong commitment may demand less
immediate compensations with the expectation that strong future
interactions may correct the customer service failure over time.
Such findings suggest that service providers not only have
measures in place to identify the strength of customer
relationships but also the ability to react to customer service
The severity of the customer service failure moderates the
relationship between customer satisfaction and commitment. Even
with strong service recovery, research indicates that customers
may still be upset, engage in negative word-of-mouth, and be
less likely to develop trust with and commitment to the
organization, if the original customer service failure was
In these cases, managers may need to do more to mend the
strength of customer relationships and restore commitment. To
identify such cases, service organizations need to track and
identify occurrences of customer service failure as well as the
severity of each.
The data available at the point of any customer service failure,
most notably the information provided by the customer at the
time of the complaint, should be viewed as critical marketing
research data necessary not only for immediate service recovery
but for improvement of future performance.
Remember, a customer service failure is defined as a failure to
meet customer expectations and the success of any recovery
effort is measured by each individual customer against his/her
own expectations. Therefore, managers would be well served to
conduct a post-recovery assessment of customer expectations and
perceptions of recovery performance against those expectations.
Classic customer service failure: serving cold
The impact of service failure recovery on customer satisfaction
can be easily illustrated with a familiar example. Consider the
case of a restaurant patron complaining about his meal being
served cold. In all likelihood, this is not a severe customer
service failure if managed properly.
If the customer’s server fails to offer a sufficient apology and
brings back a reheated meal after a 20-minute wait, a first-time
customer may be immediately deterred and never return. If this
is a long-time customer who has always received excellent
service, he may or may not write this failure off, but either
way will expect this sub-par service to be countered with
excellent service in the future.
While you may expect the customer with a long history of having
received excellent service to be more demanding in the case of
such a failure, in reality the new customer has the higher
expectations. His perceptions of the restaurant are impacted by
only this one experience where customer service performance
failed to meet his expectations. Without a formal apology from a
supervisor, a refund, and perhaps a future credit, this new
customer may allow this experience to so alter his expectations
of customer service performance at this restaurant as to prevent
him from returning.
The long-time customer has his expectations set by a long
history of excellent dining experiences and may be easier to
satisfy in the immediate wake of a customer service failure. In
either case, the restaurant manager must immediately begin to
turn his focus on ensuring future service delivery levels and
enhancing the strength of customer relationships with each of
About the Author
Brian Backer is a project manager with Polaris Marketing
Research. The Atlanta marketing research firm specializes in
consumer and business customer service satisfaction, including
service satisfaction tracking and service quality measurement.
Polaris’ state-of-the-art marketing research also includes
customer satisfaction and loyalty measurement programs,
including personalized project management. Backer can be reached
by phone at 866-217-7014 during normal business hours, or visit