“I’m Sorry"--The Two Tragically Forgotten Words In Customer Service

04/09/2017 09:11 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2017
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Unfortunately, I was one of those frustrated passengers caught in the midst of the recent spring break travel nightmare that the Atlanta Journal Constitution called the “5 Day Delta meltdown”. While I sat with my young kids trying desperately to avoid their own meltdown, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own customer service trainer mantra….Why can’t companies just learn to say, “I’m sorry”!

It’s not that different than what I’ve told my own kids since they were toddlers. If you hurt someone (even if it was an accident), just say you’re sorry! It doesn’t cost anything. It’s quick and painless, but for some reason my experience as a customer and a corporate trainer is that too many companies just haven’t grasped that simple fact. In my case, my flight was delayed 5+ hours and while I spoke with many airline reps and listened to several robotic, matter of face delay announcements, I never heard a sincere apology. Ironically, while I was delayed, I decided to try to make a few phone calls to check a few things off my to do list and received the same treatment. I first called to get a replacement band for my activity tracker. Although this was the second replacement I’d requested in a few months and black was no longer available (so I’d get to walk around with mix matched bands now), the rep offered no hint of an apology. Minutes later, I called an upscale Atlanta spa to make an appointment and somehow was placed into a 5+ minute black hole hold which eventually turned into a fast busy signal. When I called right back and told the rep I was just talking to her a few minutes earlier, she simply asked “What time did you say you wanted?” – no hint of an apology.

As a self described “high maintenance customer” and a customer service trainer, I’d offer companies the following simple advice:

Apologize Early and Often

Apologizing truly does virtually always help the situation. Those two simple words are like a magical elixir that almost immediately begin to diffuse the customer’s anger, soften their response, and provide a context for a healthier conversation. When a company representative apologizes, it personalizes them and endears them to the customer. After all, the customer isn’t really mad at the rep; they’re mad at the situation. The truth is that it becomes downright difficult to fuss at someone who has just looked you in the face and given you a sincere apology.

Apologize…the Right Way

First allow the customer a chance to vent/explain their specific concerns (without interruption). Then, reiterate their concerns to let them know that they were heard. Then, look them in the face and offer a sincere, heartfelt apology along with what you will do to ameliorate the situation. “Mr. Jenkins, I am so sorry that your flight has been delayed for 5 hours at this point. I hear your concern about making it to your mother’s 100th birthday celebration. That’s a huge milestone and I’m going to do everything in my power to be sure you make it…..”

Apologize Even If It Isn’t Your “Fault”

Don’t get caught up in the defensive mind game of not apologizing because you personally didn’t cause the problem or the cause was outside of the company’s control. First, realize that you represent the company so if the company dropped the ball – apologize! Yes, the server may not have personally put the hair in your soup, but they’re closest to the customer and as such on the hook for the apology. Also, as was the case with Delta, certainly weather played a role and that specific cause is beyond any airline’s control, but there are arguably other contributing factors within their control and either way, they’re still relaying some pretty disappointing news to their customers and a simple “I’m so sorry…” can only help the ensuing difficult conversation. Apologizing does not necessarily mean that you’re taking responsibility for causing the problem or suggesting that the company did something wrong; instead, you’re expressing empathy for the disappointing result.

Avoid the “Non Apology “Apology

We’ve all experienced this type of “apology”…”Well, I’m sorry if you took it that way…” It’s the apology someone gives when they’re forced into it kicking and screaming, they don’t want to apologize, and/or they don’t feel they should apologize. Hillary Clinton took a lot of heat for her seeming struggle to apologize over her “controversial” email practices (as chronicled in the NY Times article Hillary Clinton’s Long Road to ‘Sorry’ in her Email Use”. Delta’s Chief Operating Officer Gil West offered an apology as part of his statement on 4/6: “…While we can’t control the weather, we understand the resulting recovery has not been ideal and we apologize for that.” I can’t help but wonder how that apology will be received by the hundreds of customers stranded for days. My advice - if you feel defensive and tempted to offer the “non apology”, take a few deep breaths and imagine how you would feel if you were in their position, then offer the apology that sounds more like what you’d want to hear.

If “I’m sorry” are the two most forgotten words in customer service, empathy is the most forgotten emotion. I continue to believe that companies don’t give customers enough credit. With rare exceptions, most customers are perfectly reasonable and understand that mistakes happen, but the handling of the misstep often makes the difference between a temporary disappointment and losing a customer for life.

For more customer service tips and best practices, read Professionalism Matters’ Customer Service Report.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at danapbrownlee@professionalismmatters.com. Connect with her on Linked In @ www.linkedin.com/in/danabrownlee and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.

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