When apologies just make things worse


Earlier this week, I was on the phone with an airline to ask why they had changed my reserved seat to a different, much crappier one. The customer service rep basically told me they screwed up but had no way of assigning me the original seat again. I could get into other details, but I want to focus on one aspect of the conversation. Specifically, the airline rep said she was “sorry” at least three or four times.

Virtually anyone who has studied customer service will tell you that empathizing with the customer and saying you’re sorry for the hassle is a good way to set the tone for a productive conversation. However, you need to actually take steps after that to actually resolve the issue and make things right. If you don’t fix the problem that made the customer upset to begin with, even the most sincere apology won’t get you very far.

Looking at this another way, an apology is only valuable if it’s sincere. If you train customer service reps to read from a script where they keep saying I’m sorry without empowering them to fix the underlying problem, customers will see right through it. The fake apology makes the customer even more irate. After all, they figure, only an idiot would fall for such an insincere attempt at empathy. So if you’re involved with customer service planning, try toning down the repetitive usage of “I’m sorry” or “We screwed up”, and dedicate those cycles to actually resolving the problems that made your customers call you in the first place.

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