No matter how hard you try to avoid them, in the world of service contracting, mistakes happen. How you respond after the fact, however, makes all the difference.

Mistakes are defined by the customer. It was always important to recover well from a service screw-up. With today’s array of online reviews, it is essential. Even if no mistake was made — no screw-up happened on your end — yet the customer is still being unreasonable, treat it as though you had made a mistake.

Here are a few tips for developing an effective service-recovery process.

Identify the problem. Your first challenge is to identify issues. It is better to be proactive, to reach out to every customer before they vent to the world through a review site. Try to call every customer after every service call or installation. If you cannot connect by phone, try email. If email does not work, mail a survey.

Despite your best efforts, some customers will not respond and instead vent on a review site. Use the review site as a medium through which to reach out. Note that you have been trying to connect to ensure the customer is satisfied and that you are distraught to hear the customer is not. Ask the customer to call you so you can learn more and resolve things. Remember, you are not only writing to the customer, but to everyone who will read the angry review and your reasoned response.

Take ownership of the mistake. If a customer reaches out to you with a complaint, whoever takes the call should own the call. Think about your own experiences. Do you like having to explain a problem over and over as you are passed from one person to the next? Your customers hate it, too. Strive to create an organization where the person who deals with the problem first, owns it to final resolution unless the nature of the problem dictates an executive response.

Empower people. If you expect people to take ownership, empower them to resolve the problem. Give the front line a dollar limit. If something can be resolved for less than a certain amount of money, keep it from sucking up your time and energy. If the big-box stores can empower their low-wage hourly personnel, so can you. If you worry that they will give away the store, don’t. The natural inclination is to be hardnosed. More often they will need to be coached to see things from the customer’s perspective.

Do not make it personal. It is important that whoever deals with the problem, including management, understands that this is not personal. It is not about you. It is addressing an imperfect problem (imperfect because it involves people) as efficiently as possible. Do not take it personally. Do not make it personal.

Listen and clarify. When the customer explains the problem, write it down and repeat it back. Confirm that you understand the problem from the customer’s eyes. Show the customer you actively listened.

Apologize for the situation. Apologizing for the situation will often diffuse a customer’s anger. Express sorrow and empathy for their distress without admitting effort. Say something like, “I’m so sorry you are going through this.” Or, “I can see how you are upset.”

Ask for their resolution preference. Ask the customer what he would like you to do — what would make the customer happy. Usually, customers will ask for less than you are prepared to give. If so, this gives you the opportunity to do what the customer wants and a little bit more. This can wow an angry customer, transforming the customer from detractor to evangelist for your company.

Sometimes, the customer wants the impossible or unreasonable. In those cases, do not say no or that it cannot be done — say what you can do.

Follow up. Once the problem has been resolved, it is essential you follow up. Make sure the customer is satisfied with the outcome. If the customer has completed a review, ask him to amend it, noting that you responded and addressed the issues.

Budget for mistakes. Set aside a percent or two from every job in a contra account to be used for problem resolution. This spreads the cost across all of your work and is a form of insurance. When the money has been budgeted, it is less painful when a solution costs you. It won’t feel like you are taking money out of your back pocket to make some jerk go away.

Train, train, train. Service recovery requires actions and behaviors that are unnatural to most people. You must train and train some more. Make this part of your company culture.