Saying sorry to your customer

One of my first posts received some comments because of the following statement:

If there was a situation where neither party knew what to do, Merly ensured that she was the one that looked "silly" or "foolish" easing her colleagues tension.

Commentators were critical about Merly not being herself - I believe there is a difference between being yourself and being true to yourself.

What Merly did stayed true to herself. The core thought behind this behavior was a relinquishing of one’s pride to satisfy the other party's esteem/social needs, this does not mean that Merly became someone different. A topic of conversation that grew out of this led to thoughts on apologizing and how companies can use an apology as a force to improve and create their customer experience.

The strength of an apology lies in its sincerity. We have all received an apology where in your gut you realize that it was not sincere. At such a moment, do you feel like you can "move on"? Do you feel like an issue has been resolved and you can proceed to build an appropriate solution for the both of you? The answer is most likely no. The following points of how to apologize have been adopted from an article at Psychology Today into a playbook for businesses.

Regret: statement of regret for having caused the hurt or damage

While your intention may not have been to cause harm, you recognize that your action or inaction nevertheless did hurt this person. This regret needs to be communicated. This includes an expression of empathy with an acknowledgement of the injustice you caused.

Companies should paraphrase the customer's complaint to ensure that the company fully understands the problem at hand. Not only should companies paraphrase, but mirror emotion as well. A simple sentence such as: "I understand that you are upset" will give the customer the feeling that they have the right to release their pent up emotions.

Responsibility: an acceptance of responsibility for your actions

This means not blaming anyone else and not making excuses for what you did. For an apology to be effective it must be clear that you are accepting total responsibility for your action or inaction. Therefore, your apology needs to include a statement of responsibility.

How often do people say: "I'm sorry, but I was stuck in traffic." or "I'm sorry, but the finance department was delayed in processing your payment." As Tim Sullivan states in his blogIntercultural Twilight Zone:

The answer is that the mere act of apologizing in America is often interpreted as an admission of personal (read “individual”) guilt. After all, someone’s got to accept responsibility. No surprise that no one wants to step forward and assume the burden of responsibility as it can wreak havoc on one’s reputation or career. For this reason, when Americans give “reasons” for making a mistake they are, more often than not, on the defensive–victims of circumstance outside of their control. No one told me about the schedule change!And so on.

Instead companies should do as the Japanese do. "...apologizing is less an admission of guilt than an expression of regret that someone was inconvenienced..." So remember, no excuses.

Remedy: a statement of willingness to remedy the situation

While you can't undo the past, you can repair the harm you caused. Therefore, a meaningful apology needs to include a statement in which you offer restitution, or a promise to take action so that you will not repeat the behavior.

Pretty self explanatory, state what you will do to fix the customer's problem and your concrete actions on how you will make sure it does not happen in the future.

The two last factors of a successful apology are speed and humor.

Speed - “When you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.” - Dale Carnegie

I remember sending an email to my domain provider about an issue I was having, after 5 days I received a response. At this point I had already sent them 4 additional emails. It is important to communicate to your customers in a timely manner or they might just think that you forgot about them. If that happens, your customers will quickly forget about you.

Humor - "Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it." - Bill Cosby

This is more of a bonus. If you are able to apologize to a customer in a self effacing way, you can win the customer over with some gentle self criticism. A good example of this can be found in this post about a not-so-personalized email.

Use these points to humanize your business, to speak to your customers as you would to someone personally. Take this opportunity of a shaky customer relationship and come out with an even stronger bond to your customer.