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From Dr. Scott Sampson's Understanding Services Businesses Book (click for table of contents)
SBP 13b: Rework Plus⇐Prior —[in Unit 13: Service Recovery]—

SBP 13c: Early Communication/Early Recovery

With services, communication with the customer throughout the service delivery process can decrease the magnitude and expense of service failures. Conversely, failure to communicate early in the service process can allow small customer concerns to grow into large problems.

Why it occurs

This principle occurs because quality is ultimately defined by customers, and the most valid service “inspection” requires communication with the customer. If service expectations between the customer and the service provider are not clear, it will be less effective to “inspect” the service production without consulting the customers.


Some service businesses are communicative in nature, thus requiring the customer and the employee to be in constant communication. An example is psychological counseling, where the service process is one of communication. In such cases it is quite likely that the service provider will be aware of a potential quality defect, such as not being able to meet the customer's needs.

In many other services, communication with the customer is only a small part of the service process. Hotel employees, for example, typically only interact with customers at the beginning and the end of a hotel stay. However, most hotel problems experienced by customers occur sometime between the beginning and the end of the stay. If an employee queries the customer at the end of the stay, “Was everything okay with your stay?” and there was a problem, it would be quite difficult and costly to fix it at that late time. Many customers who had a major problem will not report the problem at that point, but will just take a mental note not to stay in that hotel again, making service recovery impossible.

If, however, the hotel has a simple mechanism for customers to register complaints at the time they occur, the opportunity exists for recovery while the customer is still present. Recovery after the customer departs is not only difficult but less-effective. If complaints are resolved in a timely manner, 95 percent of the time the customer will return.1)

This problem of late communication with customers is particularly costly in highly-customized services, such as consulting and custom home building. Customize-service providers can be tempted to collect customer specifications up front, ignore the customer for months while the service process progresses, and present the customer with the results when they are complete or nearly complete. But what do you think happens when the customer sees the results and exclaims, “That's not what I thought you were going to do!”? The cost of recovery is great, since it may require undoing or scrapping months of work in order to redo it right. Such costs could have been largely avoided if the custom-service provider would have communicated progress earlier in the process, allowing misdirection to be corrected before great effort was expended.

How it effects decisions

The service company must decide when and how to appropriately open communication with customers in the service process.

What to do about it

There are a number of ways that service companies can increase customer communication through the service process.

Service providers can actively solicit feedback by periodically asking customers what they think about how the service is progressing. In addition to spotting problems, this can help customers know that the company is sensitive to their needs and expectations. However, this approach can be time-consuming, particularly with customers who demand rework of nit-picky items (which usually does not happen).

Another approach is for service providers to offer a channel of communication that is open to customers throughout the service process. In this way, customers who have a problem can have someone in the company to tell, so that the problem might be rectified. Previously we talked about the hotel example. What some top-notch hotels do is have a “Assistant Manager” on duty 24 hours a day to handle customers' problems. These hotels will often place a sign in each room saying, “If you experience any problem with your hotel stay, call 5555 and report it to the Assistant Manager on duty.”

For example

Continuing that hotel example, one day I was staying in a nice hotel on the shore of Waikiki in Hawaii. While I was sitting at one of their outdoor restaurants with an important associate, I hung my sports jacket over a chair that happened to be the landing place for bird droppings. I noticed that the overhead beam served as a seagull perch. I was a bit upset, but it did not seem appropriate to complain then. However, I later spoke with an “Assistant Manager” that the hotel encourages guests to see when problems occur. This person had my jacket promptly dry-cleaned and delivered to my room. I left the hotel with a good feeling. However, if I had not communicated the problem until the end of my stay, the hotel would have been unable to easily fix the problem and I would have left with a bad feeling about my stay.

I once hired an engineer to do some design work for a home I planned to build. Our original agreement was that he would complete the work in three weeks. Every week or so I would call to get a progress report. The engineer reported having been working on the project, but having some difficulties. Two months later we determined that the engineer was not capable of completing the work, and he was relieved of his duties. The engineer wound up spending a lot of time on the project but only billing us for the small amount of work that was adequately completed. That great expense of time to both us and the engineer could have been avoided if we would have had better communication about the progress earlier in the process.

My airline example

In October of 1997 I flew into the new Denver airport on my way to Dallas. I arrived at 8:00 a.m., and my connecting flight was scheduled to depart at 9:05 a.m., Delta flight 1066. I checked in at the gate, even though I probably did not have to. At the scheduled departure time an airline employee announced that the flight would be delayed about thirty minutes while a required sixth flight attendant was transported from the hotel. I impatiently waited with some other passengers. I had a bus to catch in Dallas to visit a factory, and was using up my buffer time. At 9:35, an airline employee announced that the flight attendant was in the airport, and that the plane would begin boarding shortly. The employee said, “I cannot apologize enough,” but a couple of free tickets would have been good enough apology for me.

At 9:45 we were still waiting when an airline employee announced that our first drink on the plane would be complimentary. That was no consolation to me, since a cup of apple juice is always complimentary. At 9:50 it was announced that there should be no problems now, that we should be departing in about ten minutes, and that they were working on rebooking the connecting flights.

At 10:02 an airline employee announced an apology for miscommunication-that apparently the supervisor was arranging to pick up the flight attendant from the hotel, and that some “borrowed” flight attendant needed to return to her flight.

By now we were on the plane-an experience patterned after the prisoner torture chambers of World War II movies. They said they would try to make our wait as comfortable as possible, and put in a videotape of a “Home Improvement” TV episode. One passenger helped the mayhem by repeatedly clicking the call button.

At 10:17 they announced that the sixth flight attendant was on board, and they were just missing one passenger who may have left to place a phone call. At 10:20, they explained that a flight attendant did not show up for work, and apparently it was the first time it ever happened and they have no contingency plan. Unbelievable! Was that the first time a flight attendant did not show up ever, or the first time on that flight? At 10:28 we watched the flight safety video, and at 10:33 we departed.

The airline had made attempts to communicate with customers, but not early enough and not with accurate information. They surely knew there was a potential problem before 9:05, when the flight was originally scheduled to depart. It may have been prudent to inform customers then, allowing them time to make phone calls and connecting flight decisions. The delay was more costly to some passengers than others. (I wound up catching my bus in Dallas, but just barely.) The airlines might have made attempts to identify passengers with special problems resulting from the impending delay.

How manufacturing differs

With manufacturing, the customer is not involved in the production process, therefore is not available to give feedback about how the product is developing. Even with custom manufacturing (see SBP: The Custom-Manufacturing Oxymoron) the customer seldom inspects the product until it is complete. The assumption is that the engineering specifications of the product completely capture the customer's expectations for the product.

Analysis questions

  1. At what point are customer preferences known?
  2. At what point is the service checked to see if it corresponds with customer preferences?
  3. What might be an appropriate mechanism for facilitating communication about progress during the service process, and for correcting problems that surface?

Application exercise

List six to ten steps of the service delivery process, from the time the customer requests service until the service is completed. Identify and describe a problem that could occur early in the service delivery process that could go undetected by the customer until the end of service delivery. Describe the costs of service recovery if that problem is not identified until the end of the service process. Could the potential problem have been discovered earlier in the process? How? How might improved communication between the service provider and the customer have helped minimize the cost and occurrence of this or other such problems?

1) TARP. (1986). “Consumer complaint handling in America: An updated study.” , The Office of the Special Advisor to the President for Consumer Affairs, Technical Assistance Research Programs, Washington, D.C. -and- TARP. (1979). “Consumer complaint handling in America: Final report.” , U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, Technical Assistance Research Programs, Washington, D.C.

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