When things go wrong in your business, do you apologize? I’m not so sure that you should -- at least not as much.
Just the other week, my Delta Airlines flight was delayed because of the weather. The gate attendant apologized to everyone for the delay. When we eventually took off, the pilot came on the intercom and also apologized for the delay. Recently, I called up Comcast because my Internet wasn’t working. The customer service rep said, “I’m very sorry that you’re having this problem,” and promised to get my problem fixed (which he did).
But why were these people apologizing? In Delta’s case, my flight delay was because of the weather, not the airline. And my Internet problem? Oh, I forgot that I had unplugged a cable when moving my computer. The problem was me. These incidents were not the fault of the companies. And yet they were so “sorry.”
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I’m guessing that apologizing is something customer service people learn during training. For all I know, it’s a proven psychological tactic, proven through years of studies with mice.
But businesses seem to apologize a lot. Too much. Customer service agents apologize if we’re unhappy about anything nowadays, whether it’s their fault or not. Waiters apologize to a customer when the customer complains that the food is too spicy (even though the menu says that the food is spicy). A store employee apologizes when something is out of stock (even though the customer is there a day after the big sale is announced). The person behind the front desk apologizes when a room isn’t ready yet, even though it clearly states that check-in time is 3 p.m. A Verizon employee apologies for the long wait on a Saturday even though every person in the store is dealing with customers.
Why are they apologizing so much? At what point does the consumer -- your customer or client -- step up and assume some responsibility here?
This is relevant in a service business because the definition and quality of a service can be very debatable. What some consider to be satisfactory might be unsatisfactory to others.
My company sells customer-relationship-management software and we have hundreds of happy clients. But we also have our unhappy ones too. It's the same software, same implementation, different reaction.
If a client is unhappy with the software, should I be apologizing? Maybe they didn’t do enough research. Maybe they’re not devoting the amount of effort into the project that is needed to make it successful. Service businesses seem to apologize for everything -- it’s a knee jerk reaction. But often it’s not the right reaction, for three reasons.
1. Apologies change the dynamics of the relationships with your clients.
Saying you’re sorry all the time diminishes your credibility. It puts the client into a superior position and that’s not a recipe for a good relationship. Good relationships are about equal and mutual respect, not one party having dominance over the other.
If there is one party who must have authority over the other, it should be you, the service provider. You are the accountant, the lawyer, the consultant, the tech professional. You’ve been hired for your expertise and knowledge that the client doesn’t have. Saying “I’m sorry” too much (particularly if things aren’t your fault) will make your clients question whether they made the right decision relying on your expertise.
2. Apologies are often empty and irrelevant.
The more that companies apologize, the less meaning it has.
When Delta apologized for the late flight, people just rolled their eyes, if they were paying attention at all. When a customer rep from the Philippines profusely apologizes for my Internet problem, it’s not really heartfelt. Let’s be honest: does she really care? I’m sure she doesn’t. We know this. We wouldn’t care either.
To make an apology meaningful, it should be delivered less often and only when it’s really deserved.
3. Apologies open the door for more costs.
The minute that you admit fault, whether it’s justified or not, a client will see an opening to profit. This is just human nature.
Instead of apologizing, I like to say, “I’m disappointed to hear that.” I’m concerned and want to fix the problem. I’m being empathic without admitting fault. Because in many cases my company is really not at fault and I don’t want to just apologize for the sake of it.
I’m all about making sure my clients are getting value for the services we’re providing and sometimes I remove hours from an invoice if there’s been some problem that we caused. However, I try and leave the question of whether that problem was our fault up to debate and instead emerge as taking the high road by offering to make an adjustment “in good faith” or “in order to move things forward.” By not apologizing I’m keeping that option available and I have a better control over my costs.
This doesn’t mean that apologies aren’t necessary sometimes. When we make mistakes we should own up, apologize and fix them. But the best approach is to try to keep your apologies to the minimum. By constantly apologizing you may be hurting yourself more than you think. And besides, customers don’t want apologies: they just want to get what they paid for.