(c) 2013 Moyan BRENN, flickr

The Power of the Apology

or how a simple sympathetic response can secure greater customer loyalty…

It’s amazing how reluctant people are to apologise. I just don’t understand it.

I went for a physio appointment recently. I’ve been having some difficulties with my lower back since a spasm on holiday last year. I’ve been referred for physio and in 6 visits to the physiotherapy, I’ve had 4 appointments. This is because I showed up for one appointment only to be told that my appointment was earlier in the day (at a time that would have seen me in the playground, dropping my youngest at school). I had the appointment time in my diary. Let’s just say that I was encouraged to conclude that something had gone wrong with said diary.

Then it happened again. Only this time, I was told that my appointment, which had been scheduled at 3 weeks since the previous appointment, didn’t exist at all. In fact, they had no record of any appointment for me since the one that I “missed” (their word) in early December. So the appointments since then must have been my imagination, presumably. In any case, apparently the system is entirely reliable.

I was offered a further appointment a week hence and this time I asked the receptionist to write it down. She did. There was a pregnant pause. Not even the vaguest hint of a nuance of apology. Not even a sympathetic smile. Nothing. “So I suppose I’ll be seeing you next week then”, I said, turning to leave. Still nothing.

An apology is not an admission of fault or of wrongdoing. It is an expression of sympathy for the difficulties that somebody has suffered as a result of something that you have been involved in. Yes, apologies are often, usually perhaps, accompanied by admissions of guilt, but the two are NOT the same thing. You can apologise for the problems somebody faces without accepting the blame for those problems.

Now, it may well be that the cause of the first “missed” appointment was my diary management. But the second phantom appointment? Seems a bit of a co-incidence. It may well be a co-incidence. The point is that I had wasted an hour of a day in which I have client work stacking up out the door AND I will have to come back next week as well.

“I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted journey. It looks like between us, we’ve managed to have a problem somewhere. We’re fully booked now but here’s a card with your appointment next week. Bring it with you next time and at least that will help us trace the problem if it happens again.”

That would have been fine. I would have left feeling very positive. Oh, it could have been my fault, unlikely as it seems. They are going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. They feel my metaphorical pain. Warm glow.

Every law firm that I have ever worked at would fight tooth and nail against any semblance of an admission of guillt, meaning that complaints would be refuted, sometimes quite aggressively, without any apology. And in these connected times, the sour taste left in the mouth of the client can be shared instantly with 100s, perhaps 1000s of others.

When we wrote our complaints policy, we started with an apology. Not saying we immediately accept the blame. Any suggestion that we accept blame for all complaints in something as general as a complaints policy is, of course, ridiculous. But since the main reason that somebody felt it necessary to read our complaints policy would be because they feel they have something to complain about, it seemed to me that the appropriate thing to do for my firm is to express sympathy immediately by saying that we’re sorry the individual concerned felt s/he had cause to feel as s/he did. When we started working with that person, doubtless the mood was relentlessly positive. Something has happened that has reversed that trend. We’re sorry about that.

It’s when things go wrong that your service ethic has a real chance to shine. The stone wall defence is kryptonite to the goodwill you have tried so hard to build. But expressing your humanity in the form of some simple kindness costs you very little. An apology may often not be enough in itself, but failing to offer it will only accelerate the downward spiral your customer has commenced.


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Moyan Brenn’s photograph above is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-ND licence.