The Art of Apologizing

In a post which made many excellent points about customer service in general, TryBeta.com said the following about offering apologies:

2) Take the blame for ALL mistakes
Did a bug in your software crash your customers computer or was it an error on their part? Who cares! Apologize for anything that goes wrong and offer to fix it. Tell them how important this issue is and get it fixed ASAP.

They don’t want to deal with your company anymore? Give them a refund before they get the chargeback and bad mouth your product. Never take money from a customer who can not use your software as advertised, whether or not it is your fault or theirs.

This obviously sounds a lot like advice I’ve been giving for a while.  If I can expand on it: apologizing literally works magic on people, particularly sincere apologizing (not “I’m sorry you’re too stupid to use our software but thats the way it is”).  Its also free.  I would generally counsel apologizing for just about any unfavorable experience your customer has, and then immediately telling them what you’re going to do to correct it.  If you want to earn extra bonus points, give them options, because people often like being in control.  For example, if your program doesn’t have a particular feature and they mail you saying “Hey, where is this feature?”, you could say something like “I’m sorry, we don’t have that feature at present.”  If you’re planning on implementing it soon, great, say so.  If not, don’t.  Either way, suggest a work around and perhaps remind them that you’re totally committed to them being happy and if they’re not happy you’re happy to refund their purchase.  Very few people will actually take you up on that offer, but they will remember you making it for the duration they do business with you.
Apologizing can be difficult if you’re not used to it.  I would advise trying to minimize how much your ego is involved in the process.  My software is my baby, but its not so much a part of me that I can’t count to five when someone says they can’t use it (even if thats because they’ve purchased something clearly not designed for their use).  After you’ve gotten used to it, it really just rolls off the tongue.  For example, at my job at Quill, I would frequently have to do a bit of customer-service magic to find the records for customers who filled out forms incorrectly.  Often times this would happen with them actually on the phone, and the process takes about 30 seconds.  There are a couple of options for dealing with this smallest of inconviniences: snippily asking the customer to remember their customer number next time, saying “Please hold” and leaving 30 seconds of dead air, or a quick apology.  My set script for this was “I’m sorry to keep you waiting.  The computer seems to be acting up a bit.  You know computers, can’t live with them, can’t live without them.  *pause for chuckle/commiseration from customer* *finds records*  Aha, here we go.  So, how can I help you today, Mrs. Smith?”  Its a little thing, but excellence is getting the little things right.  (To head off the objection at the pass: There are some sort of lies which I don’t consider all that troublesome.  “The computer is acting up” is the “No, honey, that dress looks great on you” of customer service.  Inanimate objects which you own rarely resent being blamed for your customers’ mistakes.)

Japanese people are, to make an overgeneralization, great at using apologies as a social lubricant.  For example, when I went to the grocery store yesterday, I spent 15 minutes looking for tacos.  After 15 minutes I flagged down one of the employees, who talked to who supervisor, who called the guy who knew where the tacos were (in the Chinese food section… naturally).  I was completely nonplussed, but I got apologized to profusely by all three people involved for wasting my time.  Does this make me happy to come back to the store in the future?  Yes, certainly.  If I had been irked about wasting 15 minutes of my day, would this have made me feel better?  Yes, a bit.  And it costs absolutely nothing to do.

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