Listen to yourself talk! Part 2

In Part 1 of this article (Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management, January 2007, p. 52), we reviewed four of the expressions that can reveal your attitude toward excellence in customer service (see sidebar) and point to improvements. In this article, we review the final four of these telling and helpful statements:

5. “When something bad happens, what do/can/should I say?”This is a question that is often asked when there is a serious service failure, the customer is angry, and the manager has to face this customer. What should be said? How should the situation be handled? The response is critical, since the next few steps will determine whether the customer becomes a more loyal customer or even more frustrated and angry. If you do not know how to handle this situation, you are offering something less than excellence in customer service.

The mistake that is often made is that staff attempt to address the problem from an objective perspective and pay little attention to the manner in which they treat the customer. “From the customer’s perspective, the actual problem solution is not judged independently from the way the [facility] treats the customer in case of a complaint.”1 A good way to determine whether you are on the right track is to pay attention to the customer’s emotions. This leads us to our next standard for excellence in customer service: Respond to customers’ emotions.

These encounters with customers could be characterized as crucial conversations. Very simply, a crucial conversation is “a discussion between two or more people where (1) the stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.”2 In these situations, the key is not to get so caught up in the content of the conversation that you become blind to how people are feeling and the tone of voice they are displaying. In other words, pay attention to emotions.

Customers will exhibit a range of emotions—from being concerned, to irritated, to upset, to angry, all the way to inconsolable. It is always a good practice to have a protocol in place on how to handle complaints and reduce emotional levels. One protocol that might be considered is the acronym ABLE 3:Acknowledge the complaint and Apologize. Be calm and sincere. Listen. Explain what you will do.

It is extremely critical that such a protocol be used by all frontline staff, since they are often the first to encounter an upset customer.

So what to do when you encounter a dissatisfied customer? Ten suggestions:

  1. If you are in a public area, move to a quiet location. It will make you, the customer, and other customers observing more comfortable.

  2. Offer an apology.

  3. Indicate your willingness to be receptive and to hear about the concern.

  4. Listen carefully. Let the customer speak first. Do not interrupt.

  5. Take notes. The act of writing down what the customer says demonstrates that you are taking the comments seriously.

  6. Ask questions to clarify. Do not jump to conclusions.

  7. Put yourself in the customer’s position. “I can understand why you are upset.”

  8. Do not blame a colleague, other departments, or the company in general.

  9. If a prompt solution is not possible, indicate what you will do and when you will get back to the customer.

  10. Conclude the conversation on a positive note. “I am glad you brought this to my attention.”

6. “If I didn’t have all these complaints to deal with, I could get my job done!”How often have you heard that? And yet, if one pauses and reflects on the definition of “complaint,” it becomes clear that “a complaint is an expression about expectations that have not been met. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, an opportunity for an organization to satisfy a dissatisfied customer by fixing a service or product breakdown. In this way, a complaint is a gift customers give to business.”4

There are a number of ways to address complaints. You can ignore them. You can grouse about them. You can document them in a grievance log because you are required to. Or you can refer to our next standard for excellence in customer service: Apply a quality improvement approach.

A very basic quality improvement approach would be to weigh all service failures and complaints according to relative frequency and severity. Determine whether this is an isolated case or a system failure. Often, in addition to fixing the problem, it is important also to fix the system (or at least ask whether a system fix is needed), helping to ensure that the problem doesn’t recur.

The key point is that complaints are ways that customers indicate to you that you are not meeting their needs. Providing excellent customer service requires that we not only meet but exceed their expectations. If customer expectations are not at least met, you do not have a viable business enterprise. Listening to the customer and acting on what you hear is your job and your job security.

7. “Why should I say I’m sorry? We didn’t do anything wrong.”There is still, unfortunately, a mistaken notion that apologizing implies that you did something wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it is an expression of empathy that is often necessary to reestablish a relationship. One should always proceed from the assumption that the customer is convinced that the complaint or concern is justified. An expression of regret or an explicit apology makes it possible to reduce negative emotions.

Saying “I’m sorry” starts the process of service recovery. Companies that strive for excellence understand that service failures, real or perceived, will occur. They also understand the importance, when this happens, of restoring the customer’s trust and confidence. That is why they apply our next standard for excellence in customer service: Practice service recovery. There are multiple dimensions to service recovery. The training program offered by my firm stresses five components to a successful service recovery program:

Communication.Be sure to contact the customer as soon as a concern is expressed and continue to maintain contact with the customer. When there is bad news, share as much information with the customer as you can as soon as you can; after all, should the family take legal recourse, their attorney will gain access to all the information anyway. Avoiding the customer is not an option.

Concern and compassion. Customers quickly become frustrated and upset when they feel that their concerns are not being taken seriously. Identify a person who will be managing the relationship with the family—preferably, someone who has a very good relationship with that family. Concern and compassion is shown by what we say and what we do. Actions speak louder than words. According to families’ needs, consider making visits to the hospital, sending short notes of greeting or encouragement, and even attending wakes.

Check satisfaction. Do not ignore minor complaints—these might be the “tip of the iceberg.” Be aware of customers who are generally not pleased and no one knows why. Check to determine the real cause of dissatisfaction and take steps to resolve it. And then, always check after you feel the issue has been resolved. The customer is the final arbiter on whether a problem has in fact been fixed.

Coach the team. Service recovery requires that the entire team be involved. It is the only way to respond to service failures early. This cannot be accomplished by management alone. Provide frontline employees (especially evening and weekend staff) with skills and attitudes enabling them to respond to service failures directly.

Compensation. Monetary settlements should not be the first or only offer made to the customer. It is better, if possible, to settle service failure issues as early as possible to mitigate potential litigation. The administrator should be perceived by the family to have the authority needed to achieve this.

8. “When we have an upset customer, either I or the DON can usually take care of it.”It is not uncommon for customer service programs to depend on an administrator or DON. However, these programs will not be able to deliver excellence in customer service, if only because most of the service is actually delivered through frontline staff. Customers must feel that the staff person in front of them is able to take the right action without always having to check with management. So, if your program depends on you and a couple of managers to make things right, you might want to consider our final standard for excellence in customer service: Use a team approach.

Using a team approach is harder than it sounds, but there are some steps you can take to start the process. Distribute a short employee survey and ask what obstacles they encounter in delivering service excellence. The same can be accomplished by holding small focus group meetings with staff.

Share customers’ notes, letters, and survey results with every staff person. They need to see the impact they’re having, both in poor and excellent service. Post a chart in the break room—perhaps something displaying the percentage of new admissions who were “very satisfied” compared with those of the previous six months, suggestions for improvement, or compliments from the “very satisfied.” “Keeping score is one of a leader’s most powerful tools for clarifying the rules and focusing the energies of his or her people.”5 Write a note of appreciation to your “A” players.

Of course, your team will need the skills to provide excellent customer service. Have department heads convene daily team huddles in which they present staff members reminders on customer service. Managers need to be cheerleaders!

Finally, remember that managers develop a team by example. A manager being out on the floor serving customers directly goes a long way toward building a team. No task of customer service should be beneath a manager.


The eight standards for excellence in customer service presented in these two articles are not intended to be viewed as a comprehensive list. They are a good start, and they do address the most common attitudes and expressions that are hindrances to achieving excellence. They can provide a sound and helpful guide to taking your customer service to the next level.

Ronald E. Retzke, PhD, is President of Retzke & Associates, Inc., providing consulting and training in service recovery, excellence in customer service, and quality improvement

He can be reached at For more information, visit To send your comments to the author and editors, e-mail


  1. Stauss B, Seidel W. Complaint Management:The Heart of CRM. Mason, Ohio:Thomson Business and Professional Publishing, 2004:107.
  2. Patterson K, Grenny J, McMillan R, Switzler A. Crucial Conversations:Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York:McGraw-Hill, 2002:3.
  3. Retzke R. Service Recovery: A Practical Guide. 2006:7.
  4. Barlow J, Moller C. A Complaint Is a Gift: Using Customer Feedback as a Strategic Tool. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1996:11.
  5. Reichheld FF. Loyalty Rules!:How Today’s Leaders Build Lasting Relationships. Boston:Harvard Business School Press, 2001:103.


Eight Expressions Reflecting on Customer Service

  1. “There are some families you will never be able to please.” Display a positive attitude toward all customers.

  2. “I don’t know if our aides have the knowledge or skills to handle a difficult family.” Have clear standards for excellence in customer service.

  3. “We do look at customer satisfaction results—once a year.” Check satisfaction often.

  4. “We do a good job with customer satisfaction. Our average rating is above the midpoint on the scale we are using.” Raise the bar.

  5. When something bad happens, what do/can/should I say?” Respond to customers’ emotions.

  6. “If I didn’t have all these complaints to deal with, I could get my job done!” Apply a quality improvement approach.

  7. “Why should I say I’m sorry? We didn’t do anything wrong.” Practice service recovery.

  8. “When we have an upset customer, either I or the DON can usually take care of it.” Use a team approach.

—Ronald E. Retzke, PhD

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