Managing expectations: When things go wrong, how can you make your service right

There are times when serious competition can truly threaten your business. How should you respond?
When things go wrong, do you tell your clients what they want to hear, or what will truly explain and help them overcome their problem?

Melinda Goodman, a managing partner?at?Full Tilt Marketing, describes a construction service horror story in a posting relayed by Mark Mitchell, a consultant who focuses on building product manufacturers’ marketing practices.

Goodman describes how a window installation on a custom home project went terribly wrong, when a sales agency/distributor failed to communicate properly the status of a mistaken order. Things fell truly off the rails when the sales agency told her what she would have wanted to hear — even though the true story was nowhere so simple.

I’ll stretch copyright here because the story needs to be told in her own words, in full, to be clear:

We?ve had a few problems.

We are building a custom home on our own lot. This isn?t a builder?s home in a cookie cutter subdivision and it?s not a tried and true plan, it?s custom remember. I expect a few things to go wrong, and they do. In March as our rough construction was coming to a close and the windows were in, the last step of rough construction was installing the patio doors (four sets in all). I got a call early in the AM saying the doors were too big, but they had a suggestion for modifying the opening, could I get the inspector to stop by and approve the modifications. Sure no problem. An annoying change, a little more time and some more dollars in labor, but manageable. (P.S. the doors were three inches bigger than what was ordered). They managed to reframe all of the openings and get the two upper sets of doors in that day. I stopped out to look at things that night and discovered that the doors being too large was not the only issue, they also were made wrong. They were not double open French doors, just a center fixed single hinge. (Insert cuss words here).

I immediately called our sales rep

I immediately called our sales rep and he said he?d pull the paperwork and come out in the morning and look at everything. He did and he acknowledged they were wrong and he would go back to the manufacturer and get new ones ordered. Two days later the sales rep tells me new doors have been ordered, they are on a rush order and they will make everything to the size and spec that were ordered. He told me the manufacturer also agreed to pay for the additional labor to reframe and re-install. Two weeks pass, four weeks pass, six weeks pass and no doors. Week seven we get confirmation doors are almost done. I tell our sales agency to give me a delivery date and get us on his install schedule because our rough contractor is now unavailable because he?s on other jobs. I was told they were too busy to help with install (despite the fact that seven weeks earlier he told me they would help if our contractor was unavailable). I?m also told that the manufacturer has now decided they aren?t going to be responsible for any labor charges since they are remaking the doors. (Insert slamming down of phone and more cussing.)

He?s pretty much telling me to shut up and take what I can get

Week eight and I get a call from the owner of the sales company. Now he?s the one that will be dealing with my account instead of my sales rep. And let?s just say by dealing with me, he?s pretty much telling me to shut up and take what I can get, it?s not his problem and then some. Because he doesn?t make the doors and it?s not his fault, etc. (It was truly amazing customer service,insert snarkiness here). But rest assured, my doors would be delivered Monday (week 9). By the way, the doors only took 6 weeks the first time.

On Sunday afternoon I got a text message that the delivery truck was broke down and the doors would be delivered Tuesday and my delivery window was 7 am ? 12 pm. I was at the jobsite at 7 am and I sat in my car working until 11:30 with no delivery or sign of life. When I called the sales company they said they didn?t know anything. I got a call from them 30 minutes later saying it would be another 90 minutes. 90 minutes passed and still nothing. I then called them again and demanded to be given the name of the manufacturer and source of delivery to handle things myself. They agreed but said it wouldn?t matter, that I wouldn?t be able to solve the problem. (Clearly they underestimate me.)

So I started making calls.

First, I learned that my sales agency had brokered the doors. They went through a wholesaler to buy from the manufacturer so they were dealing with a wholesaler, not the actual manufacturer. I did call the wholesaler and I learned more in 30 minutes than I had learned in a week, including the fact that the doors had never even been loaded or slotted for delivery that day. Secondly, the sales agency had been horrible to them and they were tired of dealing with them and finally, they were the ones fighting with the manufacturer and trying to resolve the issue. Over the course of the next two hours of working with the wholesaler and their team I did manage to get my doors scheduled for delivery first AM on Wednesday, unwind the fiasco that the sales company had created, and learn that the doors were now made correctly, but still the wrong size. Ugggghhhh, but time being of the essence, we?d do our best to reframe and make them work.

When the doors were delivered and installed that same day (by new contractors I hired), I felt relieved and ready to move on. But because I believe in learning from everything, I reflected on the events and subsequent outcome to see what the takeaway was. What became blatantly clear is the need to manage expectations.

We serve others

In all of our businesses, regardless of what we do ? we serve others, and things go wrong. We have a responsibility to communicate with our clients and customers clear expectations and outcomes. What happens more often than not is customer service reps, project managers, sales reps, etc. are fearful of what will happen if they tell the truth. They don?t want to make a customer angry or disappointed or even lose that customer, so they tell them what they think they want to hear.

Here are some of my thoughts about this story.

First, this story, in itself, will be of tiny economic significance to virtually anyone in the supply chain. After all, the custom home project is a one-time order, from a single, small customer, who won’t ever likely need the products again. And while there could be issues with word-of-mouth (obviously not-so-good in this situation), realistically, in the context of the ideal purchasers of the window product here, there will likely be very little damage unless Melissa?had decided to name names in public — which she hasn’t done.

Yet the story tells something about culture, communications, and business practices, and the simple and obvious point that, if something is going wrong, it is far better to be truthful about the problem and likely consequences, as soon as you know its severity and probable outcome (and if you don’t know, you should be clear about that as well, and then set out to figure out the proper course of action.)

“White lies” have their place in life and in business — sometimes we can cover over things for a while, or in a moment of uncertainty, buy some time to gain clarity and resolve the problems. But “faking it until you make it” doesn’t work when individuals and organizations are basing significant decisions on the truthfulness of your assertions.

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