Avis Bell is a strong-willed woman who is the CEO of most situations in which she finds herself. A heart of gold, she can have a disposition of steel. She always has a definite opinion, even before hearing any of the facts. She could have been an assertiveness trainer in an earlier part of her life. At 99, she can be a challenging resident in the assisted living facility where she has lived for the past four years. She also is my mother.

So when a caregiver made an honest mistake and failed to put Mrs. Avis’ favorite magazine back in the exact spot where it was supposed to rest, you can imagine the World War III response she received from Mrs. Avis. But there is a happy ending to this service saga. The following day, that caregiver brought in an arrangement of fresh flowers from her back yard and placed them in a simple glass vase on Mrs. Avis’ dresser. That caregiver is Mrs. Avis’ “best buddy.”

Nothing creates a stronger bond between a service provider and a customer than when a problem is fixed with competence, speed and, most importantly, empathy. Such recovery ensures that the pieces that have been “glued back together” after a mishap are even stronger than the original, unshattered versions. That is because before any problems, customers operate on pure faith, hope that in the event of a breakdown, the service provider will respond well. In the aftermath of good recovery, they have solid proof of that commitment — and surging confidence in the service provider. The assisted living housekeeper effectively turned an unfortunate “oops” into an unforgettable opportunity.

The first response of most organizations to a service breakdown is to do what’s necessary — often minimally so — to fix the problem and then send the customer on his or her merry way. But customers also have a need to be “repaired” psychologically. Service breakdown threatens the very glue of any relationship — essential trust in the service provider’s ability to deliver what was promised. Your residents do not expect you to be perfect, but they do expect you to demonstrate that you care, especially when things go wrong.

The first step toward remarkable recovery is letting residents vent about the problem, and for caregivers — like it or not, and regardless of who caused the problem — to apologize sincerely before moving on to the business of fixing the problem. Letting the resident tell his or her tale and “release the pressure valve” a bit helps provide this emotional repair.

How that apology is handled makes all the difference. It’s important for caregivers to take full responsibility, not blame the problem on a “misunderstanding” or “miscommunication” or place the burden on a third party. A direct and simple, “I’m sorry this happened, and I’ll make sure it’s fixed right away” often is all the resident needs to hear.

Residents do make mistakes and know that those mistakes often cause or contribute to their problems. But they assume that their views of what should happen to atone for a mistake — whether they or the organization caused it — is the only “right” course of action. When the caregiver challenges that view — when the end game becomes determining who is right — then the resident assumes that he or she is being coerced, patronized or even lied to.

Focusing on who gets to be right puts the long-term health of a relationship in jeopardy. It is far better to focus on collective discovery and problem-resolution with the resident, not on finger-pointing. The bottom line, even if you’re ultimately right in your position, is that you still lose.

Remember, the difference between a good service operation and great service operation is not how they perform in normal times; it’s how they perform when a resident is disappointed. Your residents do not care how much you know until they experience how much you care.

Back to Mrs. Avis. She is getting ready to celebrate her 100th birthday. And her first response to a query about the invitation list for her party was: “Now, all of my friends here will be invited, right?”

Give your residents the best that you have, especially when they have been disappointed, and they will give their best back to you.

Chip R. Bell is a keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books. His newest one is “Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service.” He can be reached via www.chipbell.com.

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