Sometimes You Just Need to Apologize and Make it Right

General George S. Patton said it best: I don't measure a man's success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits bottom. In other words, everyone fails. It happens. The real measure of who you are is what you do to recover when you fail. Patton applied that rationale to his soldiers, but in the world of business, especially service businesses, it also applies.

I know of a destination management company (DMC) that just lost a very lucrative client and they did it by forgetting that the real measure of a business is what they do after the mistake is made, after the damage is done.

In the field of destination management, when things go bad, they tend to go bad in an obvious and embarrassing way for the client. After all, they have put their image—personally and professionally—in the hands of the DMC and when there is a failure, it is the client that takes the hit and not the DMC they hired. Here is what happened:

The DMC was contracted to manage a corporate event for the client’s outside sales team. As part of that contract, they were to have a bus waiting at 4:00pm at a suburban Chicago hotel. The bus was then to take the assembled outside salespeople downtown to Chicago’s Navy Pier, a journey of about an hour. These arrangements were confirmed by the client in writing the day before and again by phone that morning. There was no miscommunication, yet at 4:00pm the tour bus was waiting at Navy Pier, instead of picking up the salespeople for the trip to Navy Pier.

The destination management company had just experienced an epic failure and the client, who was left looking rather foolish, was furious. This was the time for the DMC to; as Patton put it, bounce. There were a number of different ways they could go to deal with the issue. They could have A) worked to resolve the issue as quickly as possible and with as little trouble to the already troubled client as possible, or B) insult said troubled client with a flurry of profanity, angrily lecture them on how they are human and make mistakes as well, offer to buy a couple of drinks while the people wait and then hanging-up on them.

Which choice do you think our DMC made? Here’s a hint: They showed very little bounce.

No, rather than bounce, our DMC went with Option B, preferring to slither in an altogether terrible and viscous fashion along the gutter of pathetic business practice as they left their client shaking with outrage, finally oozing into a fetid sewer where mediocrity is something sorely to be yearned for.

To recap: they swore at the client, told her off, threw a token offer at her and hung up on her. That is a recipe for losing business, which is precisely what happened. They did pay for the drink tab at the hotel while the passengers waited their 90 minutes for the pick-up. I’ll give them that, but the apology they sent via email had their client a bit puzzled. (The names have been removed to protect all those involved.)

Thank you, and again I am so sorry about last night, this [the bar tab] will be credited to you today.

And for your other service, I have made it crystal that your service is to be onsite no less that 15 min prior to the scheduled pick up time. And I will follow up with the drivers to see that this happens.

That second part would be comforting, indeed, were it not for the unfortunate fact that there was no other service contracted. This was a one-day event. Didn’t the company know that, and what does it say about them that after failing with the bus, they thought that there was more to the contract? Nothing good, I imagine. In fact, somehow the word “chaos” comes to mind.

The Bottom Line

Gross disorganization in the office of the destination management company is probably at the bottom of all of this mess. Orders get lost, emails go unread, people forget things, the busier the office, the more likely things are to slip through the cracks. It’s normal, it’s human, and it is also utterly irrelevant. To the client, all of that adds up to excuses. With any customer, you are responsible for their experience with your firm, but when you take the image and reputation of your client in your hands as part of your services, then you are not only responsible for the experience you provide your client, but also the experience your client provides to whoever they are working with. With the DMC in this story, the client was entertaining salespeople, so the damage was not as bad as it might have been. They could have just as easily been entertaining major customers. However, the DMC raised the damage level by taking a high-handed approach to the initial failure and then demonstrated their incompetence when trying to make amends.

Remember, everyone makes mistakes and no one is perfect, including you. The issue is never one of flawless service. That would be nice, but it doesn’t exist. The issue is what you do when things go bad. Do you turn inward, circling the wagons and defending your mistake, or do you reach out to your customer and work hard to resolve the issue quickly and effectively? Do you bounce or do you slither? The choice is yours.