Want to Recover from Your Big Mistake? Don't Do This

Last Updated Oct 24, 2011 9:24 AM EDT

If you handle mistakes correctly, they can be gifts. Confronting mistakes head on can up your game, make the organization more transparent and show you hidden strengths and weaknesses.

Exactly how you go about fixing mistakes, though, is a delicate matter, especially if the "mistake" is chronically bad customer service. A marvelous new book by Cindy Solomon called The Rules of Woo examines this and comes to two conclusions:

  • If you're in a service business and can't do customer service well, you need to think carefully about how widely you broadcast that fact.
  • And when you set out to fix the problem, you need to do so with conviction.
1. Delta: A Case Study in the Half-Hearted Response
Solomon describes a hilarious moment at which she walks through an airport and spots the "Delta Recovery Center":
"I stopped dead in my tracks and howled like a crazy person. The space was vast. It had been arranged neatly with a red rope maze that contained no fewer than ten switchbacks, all leading to a massive counter with...wait for it...one customer service representative and one lonely computer terminal!"
Quite what the lines of customers were supposed to be recovering from, Solomon never found out. What she saw, however, was a huge advertisement that demonstrated Delta hadn't learned anything. If you have ten rows of customers in need of recovery, but no staff or resources, nobody is going to bounce back quickly.

2. Jet Blue: When Admitting You're Wrong Isn't Enough

That's the lesson Jet Blue CEO Neeleman learned the hard way when, in 2007, 66 flights were delayed by snow storms. His 800 public apologies weren't enough. The Jet Blue customers knew the airline hadn't caused the weather; what they couldn't forgive was a response that failed to acknowledge or reduce the pain and suffering of their customers.

The goal, after any mishap, should not just be to manage it but to demonstrate, in your response, that you've learned something from it. If Delta was expecting to service that much recovery, they needed people, not ropes. And if the disaster was over, they needed to demolish their Recovery Center fast.

I'll never forget when, after suffering as a Continental Airlines passenger, I finally wrote in rage to the airline. The opening line of the reply said everything: "Thank you for complaining."

The airline took that as an opportunity not just to repair the damage but to so overwhelm me with love and attention that they turned me from a dissident into an evangelist. No excuses, just recognition, action and a commitment to change.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.