I am in awe of successful service businesses, like Pret a Manger and Amazon. Delivering great service consistently is mind-bogglinlgy difficult. And inevitably, shit happens.
One of the lessons I have learnt over the years is that what matters most is how you handle the problem. Do this well, and you don't only solve the problem, you have a chance of making the customer more loyal, not less.
I had a real life example of this last week when flying with BA from Johannesburg back home to London. Just settled in with a drink, ready to watch The Dark Knight movie to kill a few hours, and... whoops. Why the blue screen? Oh dear. An apologetic voice comes over the tannoy. The bloody in-flight video system was down. Bad enough for me, but think of the people flying 12 hours with young kids. No films = no sleep for mummy and daddy.
Well, I think BA handled it pretty well:
1. Say you're sorry, and mean it: there was genuine remorse in the apologies from the cabin crew, showing they did give a hoot
2. Show you're trying hard: the captain explained that they had been on the phone with BA head office in London, talking to the IT bods trying to re-boot the software. Indeed, the screen came up with a message, "re-booting the system now". Unfortunately, it didn't work.
3. Make a gesture: as we started our decent to London, I was planning my Mr Angry letter to complain. When, as if by magic, a smiley steward appeared with a card apologizing for the problem, and offering me 15,000 free BA miles as compensation.
The only thing that didn't work for me is that the card they handed out was pre-printed and actually said "Sorry the in-flight entertainment system didn't work on your flight today". This gave the dodgy impression that the problem was so common that it was worth printing specific cards for!