The Service Recovery Paradox

I’m writing this from a plane.  I’ve been in the air for an hour and everything is fine, but for a few minutes before the flight, things weren’t fine.  At roughly the time we were supposed to board (on an already late in the evening flight), the gate attendant came over the mic to announce that there was a staffing problem on our flight, and they were “beginning the process” to get it sorted out.  He’d get back to us when he had an update.  Huge groan across the hot and overcrowded gate area.

Then, maybe two minutes later, he gets back on the mic and says: “update on this — we’ve got our staffing problem resolved, thanks to Dave!” (and points to our new flight attendant Dave, who is standing next to him, ready to board the plane, grinning).

The room erupted in applause, interspersed with an extended round of “yeah Dave!” and “attaboy Dave!”.  Smiles everywhere. Excitement.  Good mirth.  Everyone was not only relieved that our flight wasn’t terribly delayed, but they were more happy than if there had been no problem at all.

This is an (admittedly trivial) example of one of my all-time favorite phenomena, the Service Recovery Paradox, defined on wikipedia as: “a situation in which a customer thinks more highly of a company after the company has corrected a problem with their service, compared to how he or she would regard the company if non-faulty service had been provided.”  Amusingly, the first example on wikipedia is a canceled flight.

And it held true in this case.  After the first announcement, the attitude in the room was “dammit Jetblue, get your shit together”.  And after the second, it was “love Jetblue because they have Dave!”.  But in all seriousness, it wasn’t the swift recovery that mattered, it was the way the team at the gate handled it.

I think about this all the time, and it just underscores how important it is not just to prevent bad things from happening, but being ready to respond really well when they do.  Whether that’s a hack, a bug, or just a plain old mistake.  And it’s a great reminder that when a problem does happen, your work isn’t over; it’s just beginning. And that you have the chance to not only fix it, but to make things better than they were.