Spring 2020
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What Is Service Recovery?

Develop a system for addressing and diagnosing service errors before the need arises, and gain a window into the customer experience.

Service failures are an inevitable part of the life of a consumer. Consumers interact or engage with products and services that may not always meet expectations. Depending on the magnitude and the severity of the service failure, consumers may feel frustrated, angry, and helpless.

When these failures occur, companies have an opportunity to recover and make amends for unmet customer expectations. Service recovery includes the activities associated with resolving service errors and improving customer sentiment.

Service recovery can come in many forms, depending on the context of the situation. For any given service error, customers begin assessing responsibility and the best form of recourse for their situation.1 Customers consider the gravity of the service error and the extent to which a business should make amends.

Repairing the damage can range from simply allowing the customer to vent his or her frustrations to financial compensation for the customer’s time or the loss of goods and services. Companies should pay close attention to their service-recovery activities and be mindful of how customers perceive the fairness of the outcomes.

lWhat service recovery looks like.

Time plays a critical role when conducting service-recovery activities. From the point of the service error, a customer’s sense of loyalty and satisfaction are at risk. Delays magnify the risk that customers will share their negative feedback with their personal networks (e.g., social media or word of mouth), which can dissuade other potential or current customers.

With this in mind, front line employees who interact with customers are likely best positioned to react quickly and effectively during a service-recovery operation.

Another significant component of service recovery is the activity itself. What tangible or intangible activities will lead customers to a positive outcome? Service errors can elicit strong emotional responses from customers that can diminish satisfaction and future brand loyalty.

When an error occurs in a moment of crisis, the situation is emotionally compounded for the consumer and similarly complicates the work required to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

In considering how to compassionately address a service error, be quick to acknowledge the customer’s negative sentiment. Validate his or her feelings. Nothing makes a situation more challenging than failing to acknowledge a customer’s frustration. Sometimes it starts by saying, “I’m sorry.” In other instances, the apology may need to be enhanced with a replacement product or financial compensation.

Use this time in service-recovery mode to capture customer feedback. Explore what it’s like for customers to engage with your brand. What systems give your customers the most heartburn? Is it a quick fix or something that will take time to resolve? When a service error occurs, your customer is in a state of dissonance and needs you to empathize and learn from the incident.

Next, how will you ensure your service-recovery efforts are fair and consistent? Consider the following types of perceived justice in service recovery through the lens of the consumer: distributive, procedural, and interactional.


  • Distributive justice refers to the perception that the service-recovery outcome is fair and equally applied.
  • Procedural justice refers to perceptions around the fairness of the service-recovery process.
  • Interactional justice refers to the fairness of the treatment for the individual.2,3

Creating a service-recovery system is a great way to establish standards and a baseline for fairness. It can start by defining the experience you want for your customers during service recovery and leveraging feedback to inform policies and rules of engagement.

Running a pilot program will help test your system’s effectiveness and give you the room to calibrate as necessary. Give customer-facing employees the latitude to tailor recovery activities to the situation, and empower them to go above and beyond as they see fit.

When these failures occur, companies have an opportunity to recover and make amends for unmet customer expectations.

Why is it important?

Companies invest a great deal of time and money to develop a value proposition for their target audiences. When consumers engage with the brand, they expect that promised quality and value.
Recovering from service errors is an acknowledgement to customers that they matter and that their satisfaction is important. It is an opportunity to re-evaluate the processes that led to the service error and create a chance to reaffirm the company’s commitment to delivering value and quality service.

While experiencing a service error can be challenging from all sides, it can very well be the event your business needs to start improving the customer experience.


  1. Janet R. McColl-Kennedy and Beverley A. Sparks, “Application of Fairness Theory to Service Failures and Service Recovery, Journal of Service Research 5, no. 3 (2003): 251–266.
  2. Mary Ann Hocutt, Goutam Chakraborty, and John C. Mowen, “The Impact of Perceived Justice on Customer Satisfaction and Intention to Complainina Service Recovery”, ACR North American Advances NA-24 (1997),
  3. Beomjoon Choi and Beom-Jin Choi, “The Effects of Perceived Service Recovery Justice on Customer Affection, Loyalty, and Word-of-Mouth”, European Journal of Marketing 48, no. 1/2 (2014): 108–131
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