Companies and employees need to make better mistakes — from the Career Opportunities Podcast

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I had a very common experience with companies, their employees and mistakes this week. it made me think about ways that they could improve mistakes — which happen to everyone — and make them, at least, a tolerable experience for everyone involved. Making better mistakes could be be one of the best ways to improve customer service you have ever found.


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First, my situation. The Gas Company came to fix a leak on the gas line feeding into my house. This meant they had to dig a deep trench along one of my garden beds. In the process, they cut through the soaker hose that ran through that bed. Now, to be fair, I have put a shovel through soaker hoses more often than I care to admit. It happens because they are somewhat hidden in the bed and easily cut. This was inconvenient, as I would have to repair the hose, but not something that would make me angry. Unfortunately, the workmen decided to hide the fact that they cut the hose and I only discovered it the next day. This did make me angry — angrier than I might have been otherwise. If this hose was still using an automatic timer, it could have resulted in a lot of wasted water and some minor flooding.

As someone who works in customer service, I can see why they hid the damage, though. First, they were probably embarrassed they had cut it in the first place. Then, they probably would have been punished by their management if and when I called to report the damage. These are certainly two good reasons to hide it — for them — but they have the opposite effect really. When the damage is discovered, most people, like myself, will be angrier at the deception than the damage. In order to address these issues, I would like to suggest several policies that could make mistake less painful and make customers much happier.

First, each employee should have a monthly stipend that they can call upon to correct any small mistakes they might commit. I would guess that something like $50 would probably be a good place to start. Then, when they cut through a soaker hose — or commit some other mistake — they can immediately offer the customer funds for repair or replacement. They could offer this as a credit on the next month’s bill when the homeowner provides a receipt. This would go a long way towards reducing the embarrassment and fear they might feel upon committing the mistake and also help to prevent a mistake from becoming a bigger problem by hiding it. Give the power (and funds) to fix mistakes immediately and employees will be more proactive in fixing them.

As a freelancer, I have experienced many mistakes over my career. I have always found that the quickest way to move beyond the mistake is to fix it. This could mean spending extra time, replacing a component or — as if often the case with computer support — explaining from the outset that there is nothing you can do. Since I work for myself, I have the freedom to waive my fee if It thought that I hadn’t provided value to a customer. While you probably can’t provide this level of freedom to all your employees, establishing the mistake fund described above, can help to solve those little mistakes that commonly crop up by giving your employees the freedom, and initiative, to correct their own mistakes.

Next, management needs to realize that a certain number and type of mistakes are going to occur simply because of the nature of the work. In my experience with The Gas Company I can imagine that bird baths will get knocked over, hoses cut, driveway damaged, etc. Punishing employees for dealing with these mistakes is counterproductive. It would be much better to analyze these common mistakes and find ways of reducing their occurrence overall.

Help employees by developing methods to check for those most common mistakes BEFORE they occur so they don’t have to deal with the consequences after. Any recurring mistake is a clear sign that something needs to change. Don’t just make a policy about how things are to be done, though. Give your employees a checklist, a rubric, a guide to work though when they first arrive at a job, so they can check for, and avoid, these most common issues. Even better, get the employees to write these checklists themselves. After all, they have the most experience with what happens “out there in the field.” Draw on that deep knowledge to help everyone in your company.

Mistakes will always be there waiting to happen. You can’t account for all contingencies, but you can develops ways of making better mistakes. Give your employees the ability to correct their small mistakes and you will have to field far fewer complaint calls afterwards. Help them to find ways of reducing the occurrence of the most common mistakes so you don’t to have to fix them in the first place. You’ll never rid yourself of all your mistakes, but you can make the mistake experience better for everyone involved. Remove the embarrassment. Remove the fear of punishment. Get on with correcting the mistake and your customers will be much happier.


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