Monday, 13 February 2012

Offering Apologies

The value of an effective and sincere apology cannot be overstated.  Get the apology right and you go a long way towards easing the frustration of a dissatisfied customer.  Get the apology wrong and you add fuel to the fire of their frustration.

When dealing with a complaint or an expression of dissatisfaction many service providers seem reluctant to offer an apology.  The main reason for this reluctance appears to be a fear that by offering an apology they are in some way accepting / admitting liability.

The Collins dictionary defines an apology as:
An expression of regret or contrition for a fault or failing.

There is no direct reference in this definition to guilt or liability.  An apology does not need to be a grovelling admission of guilt but does need to convey sincerity and an acceptance of responsibility. 

When an apology is not an apology
Examples of ineffective or counterproductive apologies can generally be grouped into 2 main categories:

Ø  Abdication of responsibility
Ø  The reluctant apology

The abdication of responsibility.
This attempt at an apology often includes the words IF or ANY.   Typically you will hear these examples at a railway station when a tannoy announcement informs you that your train has been cancelled:

- "We apologise if you have been inconvenienced..."

- "We apologise for any inconvenience caused..."

These are lazy examples of scripted, corporate apologies.  They show no willingness to understand the customer's position and take no responsibility for the inconvenience their own actions have caused.

The reluctant apology
There is something of a teenage strop about these apology attempts and the most common example is:

- "I am sorry you feel that way..."

The message this actually conveys to the customer is that you are not sorry at all, that the customer has the problem and they are stupid for feeling that way.

Tips on offering effective customer apologies:

The first thing to recognise is that it is perfectly possible to offer an apology which takes responsibility without accepting liability. 

When offering a genuine apology consider substituting the word "apologise" with "sorry".

Consider replacing "We" with "I".

Rather than focusing on the emotion of an apology i.e. "sorry you feel that way..." instead focus on what has actually happened and what can now be done to help.  Employing this approach will not only ensure the apology is genuine but also allows us to lead the customer on to the options, solutions or actions available to resolve the issue.  e.g.

- I am sorry this has happened, let's see what I can do to resolve this for you...
- I am sorry about this, I will investigate this right away and call you back within 15 minutes.
- I am sorry this has occurred, I suggest the best course of action from here is...

The professional service provider views an apology as an opportunity to defuse the customer's frustrations not as an invitation to add to them.