I read this story a long time ago about a hotel chain that learned that customers were happier if they experienced a problem and it was fixed than if they had a defect free stay. I must have told this story a few dozen times without remembering where I read it. I finally found the reference in this Fortune article dated Dec. 2001.

A global hotel chain was stunned to discover a perverse consequence of its customer-centric Six Sigma quality initiative. Apparently guests were mildly pleased by the chain’s sincere efforts to provide a hassle-free stay. But what really moved the customer-satisfaction needle was how well the hotel responded when something went wrong….

I once found myself stuck in an elevator with a group of friends at the hotel we were staying at. It took over an hour to get rescued. All I can remember about the whole experience is how cool it was when we got back to our hotel room and found a huge basket of goodies as an apology for the elevator incident. Bottom line, we got stuck, but we got a small token for an apology. Free food.

A typical customer satisfaction scenario at a restaurant could play out like this…: The server brings out the wrong dessert. Instead of taking it back and making you wait for the right one, they offer to let you have the one in front of you free of charge while they bring out the right one. They even ask if you want one of them packed to go. I love to go back to restaurants that give me free food when they make a mistake. (If the Taco Bell drive-thru followed this rule I’’d never have to pay for a burrito again.)

The service industry can really take advantage of this situation. You can still satisfy your customers even if you’re far from Six Sigma service levels. And for those Six Sigma companies… why not satisfy the 3.4 customers per million that are getting away? Or better yet focus more on the process handling customer problems than the process preventing all defects together.

Getting two desserts is not a defect. Getting an upgraded room because the hotel made a mistake with you reservation is not a defect. Those are the kind of mistakes that bring customers and their friends back through your doors.

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