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You know service recovery is important. But it might be bigger than you think.

Many business thinkers have written about service recovery. But it may be Dr. Leonard Berry, a marketing professor at Texas A&M University, who best defined it:

“Service recovery is the art of making right what went wrong.”

It’s a pithy sentence, straight to the point. But it shouldn’t be taken to mean that service recovery is easy.

On the contrary, service recovery is a complex institutional skill. It’s a multifaceted, culturally-rooted capacity that takes sustained effort and attention to develop.

This article will explore how organizations can achieve it.

More than a model

Ask organizational leaders about service recovery, and often they’ll point to their communication model.

You’re likely familiar with a few examples. Organizations have variously deployed the A-HEART model, or the LEAD model, or another framework that suits their particular needs.

These models are excellent training tools. They help employees internalize the fundamental steps of communication after a service error, which are:

  1. To listen
  2. To empathize
  3. To take ownership of the issue
  4. To move toward resolution
  5. To express gratitude, and ask if there are any other concerns.

Any organization will benefit from stressing this skillset. At the same time, leaders should acknowledge that a communication model is not a complete vision for service recovery.

Service recovery, properly understood, is much broader. It’s an organizational capacity that encompasses the individual act of communication—along with an entire system wherein that communication takes place.

Cultivating that system, and carefully constructing its components, is what makes service recovery work.

 Three components of service recovery

There are three dimensions of service recovery that organizational leaders should consider.

1. Within the facility
In recovering service, speed is essential. The best time to resolve any service complaint is immediately after the mishap has occurred.

That’s why the first layer of service recovery is point-of-service recovery. It happens on-site, before the customer has even left the building.

One underappreciated opportunity for this kind of recovery presents itself every day, in hospitals all over the country: patients or their loved ones getting lost.

Navigating hospital hallways can be confusing for the uninitiated. But helpful employees can learn to spot disoriented patients, and guide them to their destinations, before they ever have to ask for help.  The organization’s service recovery communication model can guide the interaction.  For example:

Listen:  In this instance, listening is a proxy for being attentive.  Avoid distractions, such as phones and other devices, while in public places so you can make eye contact and anticipate patients’ needs.

Empathize: “This building is large and it’s easy to get lost.

Apologize:  I’m sorry.

Own:  I’m going that way.  I’ll walk with you.

Thank: Thank you for letting me help.

Is there anything else I can do.

Though modest, that simple act of guidance nips an emerging service problem in the bud. It’s proactive service recovery at its best.

Once employees learn to see these opportunities, they surface everywhere. Employees can similarly use the communication model to recover service among customers who look unhappy with some news they’ve received; or who are having trouble carrying their belongings in the hallway, or who have children who might require extra supervision.

Even the smallest steps to address these concerns can make an enormous difference for customers’ experiences.

And note carefully: these are subtle issues, not always easy to observe in the course of a hectic day. Achieving such prompt recovery depends on having staff members that are not only well-trained, but also extraordinarily present and engaged.

2. Service alerts
NRC Health’s research has found that, in the event of a service error, 84% of customers expect a resolution within two days.

In organizations that discharge hundreds of patients per day, addressing service complaints within that time frame is not just a matter of employee training. It’s a matter of technological infrastructure.

Organizations need a reliable—and automatic—means to capture, process, and re-direct service complaints to employees who are empowered to resolve them. One such tool is NRC Health’s patient feedback capabilities.

NRC Health solicits open-ended feedback from 100% of patients, within 48 hours of their episode of care.

Crucially, the solution also uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) software to parse patient’s comments. NLP algorithms process what patients have to say, flagging any complaint that arise, and automatically alerting staff about them.

This gives staff the opportunity to intervene in the early phases of a patient’s discontent—when their service may still be recoverable.

Community Health Network (CHN) in Indiana, for example, used NRC Health’s capabilities to field and resolve more than 18,000 service alerts in a single year.

Without a technological solution in place, these complaints may well have gone unheard, and without a service recovery communication model, those who following-up with patient concerns can make situations worse.

3. Bringing it all together
Dr. Berry’s seminal text on service recovery also included an important elaboration: in service recovery, “There are no third chances.” This means that, ultimately, service recovery is about much more than resolving individual consumer complaints. It’s about ensuring that those complaints do not surface again.

Customers will forgive an error in service, if an organization promptly makes amends. They may even become more loyal customers in the process.

But they aren’t likely to forgive mistakes that happen over, and over again. In the face of such repeated errors, attempts to make amends will begin to ring hollow. Employees, too, are likely to become frustrated if they find themselves repeatedly apologizing for the same mistakes.

That’s why the final phase of service recovery has to be process improvement.

Aside from an opportunity to re-earn trust, customers’ complaints are also a vital source of strategic intelligence. They can point to gaps in organizational competence or care design that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Fixing these oversights can tremendously improve health system operations.

Nor do the benefits stop there. Addressing the issues voiced in customers’ complaints is also profoundly respectful. It shows patients that you’re listening. It’s a mode of service recovery that addresses the systemic flaws that give rise to customer complaints in the first place.

It is, in short, giving patients a say in the way their care is delivered. Which is perhaps the surest way to make anything right that has gone wrong.