There are important lessons to be learned from AT&Ts two failures last week. First, their widespread system outage was a classic, preventable, basic failure. Then they added insult to injury with a $5 apology that made its customers feel even worse. All this from an organization that has a history of disappointing its customers and failing to learn the important lessons:

  1. Mitigate the risks of basic and complex failures.
  2. When you fail, recover by doing more than just “making it right.”
  3. Choose a level of hospitality and deliver it.

AT&T’s basic failure

Last Thursday, AT&T had a massive cell phone outage which their CEO, John T. Stankey said “was due to the application and execution of an incorrect process used while working to expand our network.”

That fits Amy Edmondson’s definition of a basic failure: Stupid ones caused by mistakes and slips. Can be avoided with care and access to relevant knowledge. Known/consistent territory; but didn’t use our knowledge because of mistakes of inattention, neglect, overconfidence, or faulty assumptions.

This failure could have been avoided. Similar future basic failures can be avoided with cultural improvements around investments in training and a more disciplined attitude. Future complex failures can be avoided with an investment in redundant systems.

AT&T’s service recovery failure

Stankey and his people cannot possibly have read my earlier article on Why You Must Rethink Your Attitude To Service Recovery. Had they done so, they never would have thought a weak apology and $5 credit had any chance to “make it right.”

Stankey said, “I believe that crediting those customers for essentially a full day of service is the right thing to do.” As I wrote about service recovery, things go wrong. Good companies make them right. Great companies go beyond that to making the people who were wronged feel better.

Further, a service break is a relationship break. AT&T needs to reconnect with the people wronged. They must own the failure, fix it, apologize in a way that makes those injured believe AT&T cares, and take action to prevent it happening again.

Merely refunding the price people paid for a service that was not delivered does not come close to making anyone think AT&T cares.

Choosing the right level of hospitality

The right level of hospitality for you to deliver may be low. If your core focus is design, production, or distribution, hospitality is less important than if your core focus is service.

Core Focus Bradt

Still, every organization designs, produces, sells, delivers and services in one way or another. And every organization has to deal with its own people as well as customers, collaborators and other stakeholders. So, even if your core focus is not service, there are always some people you’re going to want to treat hospitably, choosing one of three different levels to make them feel:

  1. Welcome, cared for, appreciated and special
  2. Accommodated, served, ordinary
  3. Intruding, under-served, inferior

We’ve all experienced these different levels.

Welcome, cared for, appreciated and special

This is the way luxury resorts, restaurants, stores and the like make you feel. This is the way your family makes you feel (unless you have teenagers.) And this is the way almost anyone can make you feel, no matter the circumstances.

Even in an over-crowded, chaotic, city-center emergency room, the staff can make its inevitably scared, disoriented and vulnerable patents feel welcome, cared for, appreciated and special by giving them personal attention, taking an interest in them as people, showing compassion and demonstrating confidence in the system’s ability to solve their problems.

Accommodated, served, ordinary

This is like the basic level of hospitality delivered by a budget hotel. You don’t expect five-star luxury. But you do expect a clean bed that’s ready when promised – just like you expect your cell service to be there when you need it. There’s nothing wrong with feeling accommodated, served and ordinary under ordinary conditions.

Intruding, under-served, inferior

Hard to imagine anyone setting out to make anyone else feel this way. It’s generally the result of poor communication or basic failures. In any case, it hurts. It certainly hurt some of AT&T’s customers last Thursday.

Ultimately, it’s not about the failure itself. It’s about how the people in the organization that failed make the people that were injured feel. AT&T followed its first failure with a second failure that made its customers feel even more under-appreciated, intruding, under-served and inferior – insulted.