Friday, February 16, 2007

How much does an apology cost?

Companies could do well to employ a simple, well executed tactic when an adverse customer experience risks turning a valuable relationship sour. Say you're sorry. It may be small but this vastly over-looked gesture has the potential to help retain many customers that otherwise abandon a brand after a distasteful event.

Not all acts of apology are created equal, and the potency of a particular form lies which its significance in human relationships. Saying "I'm sorry" suggests the company understands the signficance of the error, respects that it has taken away from the life of the person and expresses regret. In short, it says a company cares.

Of course, the value of the apology lies in its perceived sincerity, both in tone and spontaneity This is not the province of a carelessly implmented corporate mandate to 'apologize by the playbook'.

It remains such a simple gesture of humility, acknowledgement and compassion that it is surprising how infrequently companies - through their employee frontline - do it.
Today's USA TODAY article highlights the appalling conditions air travelers faced recently in a recent storm-related delays when many were forced to wait up to eight hours on tarmacs within sight of the gate. Jet blue was particularly aggregious in this episode. Yet the CEO did not say he was sorry once (it's hard to imagine why the reported would have omitted it). Using language like "unacceptable" is fighting corporate speak and that's precisely the problem. Adopting a more human character would serve companies bettter.

This writer believes there are cultural factors in play that prevents company's front line representative from engaging in this simple, very human act. Beyond the obvious legal one - the fear that saying sorry admits guilt and culpabilty and therefore financial responsibility - people have been conditioned not to say sorry because it means they are wrong. Being wrong makes people feel bad, very bad indeed. This is a winning culture, a culture in which success and its trapppings are prized, in which being right is good and being wrong is bad. The motive to avoid what hurts us is classic avoidance behavior.

As a repair tool to mend damaged relationships, a heart-felt apology can be easily delivered in a way that avoids the personal cost to an employee in facing an angry individual or group: say "We're sorry". It gives the employee a way to avoid feeling 'wrong' but it is undeniably less personal, which is why care must be taken in the delivery.

Companies would do well to educate and coach customer-facing employees - including the CEO - in the simple practice of apologizing well. The benefits of doing so - retaining the lifetime value of the customer - vastly outweight the cost.

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