When you goof, it pays to admit the mistake and do what is right for client


October 05, 1992|By LESTER A. PICKER

I'm still shaking my head from a recent telephone conversation. It was one of those events that forces you to recognize the world no longer conducts business as usual.

The old family van had gone into the shop for a transmission check and oil change. But less than 24 hours after leaving Rocco's auto service facility near Wilmington, Del., the engine seized up, spraying oil all over the road.

AAA towed the vehicle back to Rocco's, where it spent the night. The next morning, the phone rang. It was Tony Rocco, the owner of the business. The conversation went something like this:

"Mr. Picker, I've got some bad news. The engine is completely ruined." Let me tell you, at that moment, it wasn't visions of sugar plums dancing in my head. What followed was even more fanciful.

"I'm calling to apologize. It's our fault. We installed the wrong oil filter when we changed the oil yesterday. I'm calling to discuss what we're going to do, but the bottom line is I want you to rest assured that we're going to take care of the whole thing and it won't cost you a dime."

Stunned silence on my end of the line. Talk about cognitive dissonance -- an ethical repair shop? I mean, sure, I've been going to Rocco's for years. And, sure, he always gives courteous and excellent service. But this was almost un-American.

As it turned out, the offending oil filter was boxed incorrectly, and was not double-checked. Tony looked at it as an expensive learning experience. He replaced the engine, included a full warranty, gave us a loaner, and apologized many times.

I was intrigued by the man behind the business. I asked whether the recession was hurting him. Not at all, he told me. In fact, his small business had expanded, building a state-of-the-art facility just a few blocks from the Wilmington neighborhood he had served for nearly 20 years. Then he said the magic words.

"We cherish each and every one of our customers. Every one is special to us and we go out of our way to try to let them know that."

And integrity? "It's like this," he said, "there are literally hundreds of different cars out there with thousands of parts. We do everything possible to do the best job we can. But we do make mistakes. And when we do, we admit it, learn from it, and make it right. That's only fair, right?"

So, what can we learn from Tony Rocco's attitude? Look, Tony is no Lee Iacocca. He doesn't have a department of quality-control experts making customer policy. He just does what's fair and right for his customers. He knows that they deserve to be cherished. And, while schlock auto repair shops have closed during this recession, his brand of entrepreneurism has flourished.

My point: Does your non-profit show that it cherishes its clients in everything it does? Do you call clients at night, like Tony Rocco does, to find out if they are satisfied with your services? Do you provide a positive, highly responsive customer environment?

Now, to the more important question. What does your agency do when it goofs? This is one of the most profound ethical questions for non-profits. Too often, we run for legal cover, instead of creating procedures to recognize mistakes or quickly remedying them.

Total quality management, especially in health care settings, goes a long way toward minimizing mistakes and handling them when they occur. In fact, experts say that a quality management program makes mistakes easier to handle, and results in far fewer and less costly law suits. And, quality controls cement customer loyalty.

The proof is in my relationship with Rocco's. What I know about cars would fit between any two periods in this paragraph. So, I need a mechanic I trust to do good work, at a fair price, while making me feel like a valued customer. I've told lots of friends this story, and every one had been burned on auto repairs. It's a sure bet some will end up at Rocco's.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md, 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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