Charles Howden

February 9, 2007

As an apology, how does it do?

Filed under: Customer Service — Charles @ 10:24 pm

“We apologise for the late running of this service…” If you have ever travelled on a train, you will be entirely familiar with this lame excuse for an apology. On a bad day, on a busy railway station, this insipid line can be bouncing around the platforms like an echo on a frosty morning.

As an apology, how does it do?

I came across a great ordering system for grading apologies for failures in customer service on the Seth Godwin blog (thanks to him for the following….

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is best:
“You can always take your business elsewhere.” (1): Thank you, I will, and so will all of my friends.
“It’s not our fault.” (2): This is a non-apology, where you are not seeking to redress the issue, nor evincing any sort of sympathy for the injured.

“We’re sorry that you feel that way.” (3): This is also a non-apology, which roughly translates into “It pisses us off that you feel that way. If you didn’t feel that way, we would be happy.” It also doesn’t take any responsibility for the problem, and places all of it onto the injured party. Be careful of any apology that starts “I’m sorry that you…”

“We’re sorry if we did something wrong.” (6): This is getting there, but doesn’t really accept responsibility either. You are not acknowledging that you did anything wrong; you’re still hoping that you haven’t. You are offering an apology for appearances sake.
“We’re sorry that this occurred.” (7): You are sorry, but as a matter of principle you’re still trying to insist that it wasn’t really your fault.

“We’re sorry that we caused this problem.” or “We’re sorry that we have let this happen.” (9): This is a full apology, and is what the customer needs to hear. Frankly, it doesn’t matter that it was really the post office’s fault, and not yours; the customer doesn’t care. Most people hearing this cannot help but respond with some sort of graciousness, such as “Well, all right then, these things happen. What are you going to do to fix it?” This is the target level that you want to hit for your customer service.

But for the record, there is still one level to go. The complete apology is: “We’re so sorry that we caused this problem; we are really distressed over this. Please know that we take this very seriously. This is a huge oversight on our part. I will immediately notify my supervisor, and we will review our procedures to ensure that this cannot happen again. In the meantime, that is no consolation to you for our lack of service! What can we do to regain your trust? We will be sending you a little surprise as a token of our appreciation of having you as a customer.” (10) In truth, this little speech goes on until the customer interrupts. And it is followed by a few more apologies as the conversation closes, as well.

Customers expect things to go wrong. We are all human and “stuff happens”. When organisations respond quickly, sympathetically and magnanimously, they can (the research confirms) build higher levels of customer loyalty.

The best apologies come from the heart. The worst come from a script. And the ones on the tannoy system? I’ll let you decide.

My suggestion? Dispense the recorded message, it does not achieve anything from the customer’s perspective except, perhaps, mild irritation. Replace it with real person tasked with picking up the mike, perhaps every half hour if the service is really disrupted, who can give anyone listening the big picture in his or her own individual style. Maybe something like:

“I’m sorry the trains are running late today, we got caught out by the snow this morning. Our gritters are out clearing the lines and we expect to be on top of things by early afternoon. In the meantime, do watch your step on the platform, we’ve cleared most of the ice but it may still be slippery in places.”

The train’s still late but at least a real person is taking time out to tell us.

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