From disgruntled client to raving fan

May 26, 2024


Having a service recovery mindset in your projects is essential in order to keep your organization’s sustained competitive advantage.

Organizations are not immune to making design errors that could damage their reputation for a short period, or permanently if no service recovery culture is in place. Since designing our first service manager strategy, we embedded service recovery as one of the key drivers to achieve our vision.

Through my experience, I have discovered that service recovery should not be treated any differently than when we are trying to solve a complex problem. As engineers and architects, we have an advantage when it comes to this because our work requires solving multilayered problems every day.

A year ago, we received an email from a disgruntled client regarding building users’ complaints with temperature levels in a handful of rooms in a recently remodeled lab space. As engineers, we do not typically receive such complaints, but when we do, we can get nervous because we failed to identify an error. However, when we understand perfection doesn’t exist and we keep service recovery top of mind as part of our service delivery, we can face these calls with a game plan.

In this article, I will walk you through a series of steps we follow called “Reframing” to look at tough problems from a new perspective, so we do not fall in the default trap of jumping into quick – usually ineffective – solutions. The four steps include:

  1. Frame storming. On this step, we start with a blank whiteboard, setting aside preconceptions and opening our minds to explore issues as well as their nuances. This step helps the team to identify assumptions and blind spots, lessening the risk of pursuing inadequate or biased solutions. It is also beneficial to invite outside perspectives to be part of this process to look at the issue with a cool head. In this example, we came up with a long list of ideas and potential scenarios of what could be the causes for the complaints.
  2. Peeling. On this step, we dive deep to identify the root cause of the problem from the information gathered on the previous step. This is also the stage where the team investigates issues thoroughly, peeling back the layers to understand underlying drivers and systemic contributors. In this example, we identified that rooms with a significant amount of large equipment were designed based on the initial design development equipment list which was not updated during the construction document phase. Finding this key piece of information allowed us to focus on this as the main potential issue. It also highlighted a gap in our quality assurance process.
  3. Empathizing. On this step, we put ourselves in other people’s shoes to understand how they perceive the problem. An effective way to tackle this is to create a list of stakeholders who are directly and indirectly affected by the issue. Then, compartmentalize them by departments and level of influence and interest in the issue. Finally, create an empathy strategy guided with questions like these: What do they think, how are they acting, what are they saying, and what are they feeling? In this example, we scheduled an on-site meeting with the critical stakeholders with the goal of telling them what we discovered in Step 2 and gathering the information needed to draft and execute a strategy. The common feedback we got from this conversation was around the frustration of the room’s end-users and their high sense of urgency to resolve the issue.
  4. Envisioning. With the information gathered from the previous steps, we then transitioned from framing the problem to imagining and coming up with solutions. For problems like this one where we have a clear desire vision, we use a backcasting approach, which focuses on reverse engineering the path to success from the future desired outcome to the present moment. The goal of this strategy is clearly identifying a list of the long-term, near future, and immediate actions. In this example, the goal was to get the rooms to operate at the appropriate temperature. Then, we listed everything that needed to take place to make this vision a reality and categorized them per the level of priority as the backcasting strategy requires. It took the team three weeks to design a non-invasive solution and a few more weeks for the solution to be implemented.

As we were conducting Step 3, everybody in the room was appreciative of us having a structure in place to help them see the light at the end of the tunnel. By the time we were sitting in the room, we had a narrow focus on what we though the root cause was which gave the stakeholder peace of mind.

Having a service recovery mindset in your projects is essential in order to keep your organization’s sustained competitive advantage. From my experience on our service management culture, when we enter the recovery phase our team must tune into their soft skills and be equipped with a simple methodology that allows them to navigate the process in a consistent manner. “Turning up the soft” is our trigger phrase to focus on the intangibles of service recovery, including attentiveness, proactive communication, responsiveness, flexibility, and empathy. I would guarantee if you invested in your team to juggle these soft areas effectively, you would turn your clients into raving fans. 

Leisbel Lam, PE, LC, MBA is a principal at Michaud Cooley Erickson. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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