There are numerous inspiring and comforting quotes on failure, how great it is to fail and how failure is not failure but actually a stepping stone to success. Without fail( pun completely intended)every inspirational biography and autobiography we read, of great men and women who have transformed lives by the works of their hands and who’ve shifted dynamic milestones, is rife with stories of how these icons have fallen many times, picked themselves up, dusted off the debris clinging on and forged forwards. Every motivational speaker be they on the pulpit, podium, dais, lectern or platform, sings the same song – of the beauty of rising from failure like the lady of the lake at dawn in the Welsh folk tale.
When  Ralph Waldo Emerson says ‘The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall and Bill Gates says ‘It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.’ They mean exactly that. And we so often preach the good gospel of their messages.
Now let’s get out of the time warp of all things good theory and reflect on what happens in reality. What reaction do we have when an employee in our organization makes a fatal mistake that: costs the company losses in millions of shillings or dollars; makes a service delivery blunder that causes brand damage to the organization and results in negative publicity; impacts on a high net worth value customer in the close circles of the CEO’s buddy list?
In a recent training session, the reaction from a group of senior customer experience managers was that ‘heads would roll’. It was definite. There was no discussion around it. It was a given. I have since conducted a small poll amongst my colleagues in industry around the globe and the verdict is watertight. That consequences would follow and these consequences would not dressed up as an opportunity to look back at the mistake, determine root cause and learn from it, but rather as consequences that ‘teach’ the entire organization that mediocrity will not be tolerated.
Well……….if one is logged as a serial and habitual mistake-maker, then coming down hard is not an option but a mandatory next step. However, if one makes a genuine mistake then should we not take a step back, do root cause analysis, learn from the findings and move on, richer for the experience?
The current punitive culture severely erodes the gains slowly being made in the customer service industry. When staff are too fearful to report their mistakes, terrorized by the thought that they may lose their jobs or be subjected to some ‘head rolling’ disciplinary measures, they would much rather keep mum about it. And because there’s comradeship in error, fellow colleagues happily aide the ‘culprit’ cover up the ‘crime’ seeing as to it, they may be the next offenders. And so the vicious cycle continues. Genuine mistakes do not get assessed, the source of the service failure does not get analyzed and corrective and preventive action goes un-instituted. And yes you guessed right – the bearer of the brunt of all these non-happenings is the customer, who experiences the unresolved process or people issues over and over again.
We need a complete culture change – starting from top leadership. Where genuine mistakes are truly viewed as learning opportunities and where service failure is embraced as useful feedback in the business loop. We need to move away from thinking of staff who make mistakes as perpetrators of crime but as victims of our systems, processes, procedures or transactions gone bad that need rework. We need to extend this thinking across business and have leaders champion the cause of truly embracing failure with open arms. No matter the gravity of the mistake, if it is established that indeed a genuine mistake has been made, then subsequent reactions should angle towards learning.  There’s an anonymous quote about customer complaints being the school book from which we learn. If we embrace this school of thought, we should all be sporting PHD degrees by now.
It may be a long journey ahead to create transformation in this area for it is natural for leadership to strike out and ‘deal’ with offenders. But as clichéd as it is, every journey indeed begins with the first step and recognition of the lack in this area is already a big step forward. As we regroup to re-programme and recalibrate to hardwire the national thinking towards espousing genuine failure, we need to soberly internalize the wise words of Colleen Barrett – President South West Airlines, whose biggest pain point is a foul attitude far that far outweighs mistakes…………..
“We’re looking for people who take the business seriously, but not themselves. A sense of humor is a must. And we look for people who were raised on values like the golden rule….we’re a very forgiving company in terms of good honest mistakes, but we’re not at all forgiving about attitude and behavior and demeanor.”