Stuff happens! Fortunately, today’s customers, as short tempered and impatient as they may be, do not expect service providers to be perfect. They know customer service is powered by human relationships and “to err is human.” They do expect organizations, however, to always demonstrate that they care in the face of any customer disappointment. In the words of Texas A&M professor and friend Len Berry, “The acid test of service quality is how you solve customers' problems."

Unfortunately, the field of service recovery has had a rather troubled history. Ron Zemke and I once defined service recovery as "a thought-out, planned process for returning aggrieved customers to a state of satisfaction with the firm after a service or product has failed to live up to expectations." Take a look at the wall of shame for superbotched service-recovery efforts -- for the Ford Explorer, Exxon Valdez and, some might say, the BP oil spill: Someone at the helm determined that service recovery was all about damage control not customer healing. Without fixing the disappointed customer, physical repair of the issue is for naught.

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Granted, fixing the customer’s problem is crucial. But as it's often said, customers don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Therefore, it is the relationship side, not the engineering side of recovery, that keeps service providers off the wall of shame.

Great service recovery begins with humility. Imagine you're a parent with a small child who wakes up in the middle of the night frightened by a bad dream. In tears, the child comes into your bedroom. What would you do? The answer is easy: You would model bravery and confidence and carefully listen without judgment. And you would offer great empathy while seeking to calm and encourage. The principles applied should be the same for customers.

Angry customers feel victimized in some way. The source of the fury may vary. But humility is one quality that communicates, “I am not your enemy.” Humility expresses a desire for a “no-fight zone” to the raging customer to calm the person out of a “ready to fight” mode. It begins with creating a connection that demonstrates sincere interest and obvious concern. Use open posture and eye contact. Listen and look like you are listening to the customer.

Apologize with feeling. Avoid using “we” in apologizing to customers -- as in “we’re sorry.” An apology should always be delivered in the first person singular: “I’m sorry.” Now, “I’m sorry” doesn’t suggest you caused the problem. It says you care. Assume innocence, even in the face of prior history. Confidently lower your voice. Let the customer witness genuine concern.

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Express empathy. Humility begins to set the stage for problem solving, but empathy and understanding prompt a customer to stop the “fight or flight” posture so the resolution stage can begin. Empathy is an expression of kinship and a powerful partnering tool. It includes communicating to the customer that you fully appreciate the impact the service failure has had. It is like saying, “I get it! I know just how much this hurts. I would feel just like you do if this had happened to me.”

Empathy means listening to learn not to make a point or correct. Whether you, as a service provider, agree with the customer’s view is not the point. The goal is to give evidence that you understand. It includes agreeing with the person's feelings (not necessarily the position). Deal with feelings before you deal with facts. Understanding customers in times of trial and tribulation includes getting insight into their expectations for a fair fix.

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Approach problem solving as allies. Alliances are formed through joint discovery. Words like “what would you suggest?" or "what would you like to happen next?” are more inclusive and less threatening. The core of the emotional side of recovery is restoring trust: the customer’s belief that you can and will keep promises made or implied. Restoring trust is accomplished by involving the customer in solving the problem. “Can you give me a rundown on the history of this problem” reassures the client that the problem is fixable and will be resolved.

An alliance includes words and actions that show a can-do competence, a sense of attentive urgency and a take-charge attitude. If the infraction is major, forging an alliance may mean offering some type of atonement. And an atonement would involve providing a gesture that tangibly telegraphs sincere regret over the disappointment. Atonement does not mean “buying” the problem. It can be as simple as a small courtesy, a personal extra or a value-added favor. Act responsible for the recovery and never duck the issue or pass the buck for someone else to handle.

Related: The Magic of Owning a Customer-Service Problem

Follow up to show loyalty. Assuming a solution is found and agreed upon, the customer should witness something happening that communicates that the company can be reliable again. Great service recovery includes the after-the-fact customer experiences that communicate, “We are loyal to you. We will not abandon you now that we’ve solved your problem.”

Pick up the phone and call the customer to find out if everything has returned normal or if any problems are lingering. Send the customer an email. When the customer returns for future service, ask about the last problem.

If customers know you remember and are still concerned, they’ll realize that their bad experience was an exception. Remember to always keep promises. Service recovery starts with a broken promise (at least in the eyes of the customer). Don’t make a promise as a means of service recovery and then ignite more anger by disappointing the customer again.

Great service recovery starts and ends with remembering you can refashion memories, turning customer disappointment into customer delight, transforming an oops into an opportunity. Effectively dealing with customers in their darkest moment is powerful. Research shows that customers who have had their problem followed up quickly with great service recovery end up being more loyal than clients who have never had a problem. The problem-free customer operates on faith. But the great recovery customer operates with proof!

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