Best Practices in Service Recovery


By Lin Grensing-Pophal August 9, 2013

Brian Dunham of ManagStaff Inc. (MSI), a professional employer organization (PEO) and HR outsourcing firm in Tempe, Ariz., recalled a situation where lack of communication among his company, the client and one of the client’s employees resulted in a service breakdown that could have derailed the business relationship. But after researching the problem and identifying where it occurred—with breakdowns on both sides—those involved came up with a resolution.

“Instead of pointing fingers, both parties assumed responsibility for our error,” Dunham said. “Together we brainstormed and created a new process to ensure quality communication between our benefits department and our clients.” The incident, and the company’s prompt and honest response, he added, “gained us credibility as a trusted and reliable service. Since then, our client has added three more companies to our services in just two years, and his praise has won us multiple accounts through word of mouth.”

HR consultants are often in the unenviable position of being somewhat caught between the needs of whoever hired them and other internal constituencies. Nevertheless, even when things go bad—and they sometimes do—consultants can recover and even generate loyalty that extends positive referrals and boosts credibility.

And, as MSI discovered, effectively resolving an issue can lead to a more loyal and more productive relationship.

A “Seeking Feedback” Philosophy

The first step to effective service recovery is to adopt a philosophy that welcomes constructive feedback. However counterintuitive it may seem, the concept that no news is good news is all wrong. Successful HR consultants should not only welcome constructive feedback when they receive it but should also actively seek it out, learn how to interpret what they’re hearing and devise ways of effectively using the comments to continually improve.

Unfortunately, “Complainers often provide helpful information, but they don’t present it well,” said Linda Swindling, J.D., “recovering” employment attorney and the author of Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers (Wiley, 2013). Still, “People who take the time and energy to complain by identifying a problem area in your business are really doing you a favor.”

Although the feedback you receive may be heated, emotional or poorly conveyed, don’t disregard any complaint, Swindling advised. “Companies and business leaders that address complaints effectively often build much greater loyalty.” She offered the following tips to HR practitioners on how to handle negative feedback:

  • Listen without judgment.
  • Avoid trying to explain your point of view.
  • Don’t blame.
  • Show appreciation for the information: “Thank you for bringing that to my attention.”
  • Highlight mutual interests. “It sounds like this isn’t working; neither of us wants that.”
  • Show empathy but monitor “yes” and “you’re right” responses. The complainer may not be correct.
  • Use phrases like, “Taking all of that into consideration, I can see why you feel that way.” If you’re in the wrong, say, “What can we do to make this better?” or “What do you think is fair?”
  • Don’t dwell on the past. Spend 90 percent of the conversation focusing on the future. “Let’s build on what we’ve done right and get this issue resolved.”

Garrett Miller, CEO of CoTria, a productivity-training company based in Tranquility, N.J., agrees. “The key to feedback is to never take offense, keep one’s pride in check and realize that the person providing feedback is giving you a gift,” said Miller. He recalled a senior manager who attended one of his seminars and wrote in her feedback, “How about a few less jokes and more teaching.” That comment was tough to take. “That struck me to the core, since I’ve always felt that my seminars were fun and interactive,” Miller explained. However, “When I thought about her feedback and replayed the seminar in my mind, I realized she was correct. I immediately implemented changes in the flow of my presentation and wrote her a thank-you note.”

That kind of nondefensive response can be difficult to muster, but it’s the right reaction, he maintained. “I would rather hear the complaints, because those issues are what are holding me back from being better.”

Responding Nondefensively

Both humility and pride come into play when receiving negative feedback of any kind, Miller admitted. He defines humility as “the ability and willingness to learn and be taught.” Being able and willing are key, he said, “because I see the incredible value in feedback, I accept it and solicit it.” Yes, “my pride is damaged, and I feel initial pangs with each negative word about my performance, writing and offerings; but I know that those who provide honest and valuable feedback are really helping me understand how I can care for my customers better. If these customers are feeling that way, then I imagine others are, as well.”

Mike “Dr. Woody” Woodward, an organizational psychologist, executive coach and the author of The You Plan (Keynote Publishing, 2010), said: “Listening to tough feedback is never fun, and it never gets easier.” Even so, “The reality is, we are in a fast-paced, competitive world where adaptability is key. You have to be constantly taking stock of what’s working and what’s not, in order to stay ahead of the curve.” There are, he noted, “always competitors waiting for you to stumble.” What differentiates those who will succeed from those who won’t is “recognizing when you stumble, reaching out to your client, acknowledging it and doing everything it takes to make it right.”

Like Miller, those consultants who not only respond well to but welcome constructive criticism believe that the value far outweighs the initial pain.

“If you want honest feedback, you have to create an environment that will allow it,” said Woodward. Such a change will enable you to make process improvements that benefit both current and future clients.

While some harsh comments may simply represent a client’s need to vent, all feedback is valid. Woodward suggests focusing on the themes that may emerge. “There are always going to be those idiosyncratic issues that are unique to a one-on-one relationship, which you shouldn’t worry too much about,” he said. “Focus more on the overarching themes of what you are hearing.”

The HR consultant’s job is to understand what clients see from their perspective so that these perceptions can be managed, Woodward explained. “Sometimes the changes may be minor tweaks, but those tweaks can go a long way in building strong, lasting relationships.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

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