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The Power of Saying “Sorry” , Part 2

(Not Being Sorry Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry. For Part 1, see here.)

Part 2: When to Apologize?

Barbara Kellerman, in an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review (When Should a Leader Apologize and When Not?) says, “Leaders should not extend public apologies often or lightly. One or more of the following conditions should apply: The apology is likely to serve an important purpose; the offense is of serious consequence; it’s appropriate that the leader assume responsibility for the offense; the leader is the only one who can get the job done; and, the cost of saying something is likely lower than the cost of staying silent.”

However, on a smaller, personal scale, the risks of ‘sorry’ are much slighter, as for example in the case of a mobility management patron who has experienced a billing error or whose car has been vandalized. In Part 1 of this post series we mentioned there were two kinds of “sorry”. One brand of “sorry” expresses empathy; the other delivers justice.

But sometime customer-victims want both. For example, when an incident of vandalism is first reported to management, they are looking as much for “empathy-sorry” as they are “restitution-sorry.”

Saying you’re sorry early in the process – and meaning it – can defuse a larger emotional bomb down the road. Early in the process, with an investigation of the incident pending, you probably are not in a position to provide restitution. But not offering even a few crumbs of empathy or contrition tells the customer you simply don’t care and you’re probably hiding the truth. Unrequited anger is left on high boil…and you’ve just left the kitchen.

The Art of Being Truly Sorry

There’s a bit of art to properly processing ‘sorry’, but it can be learned.

For example:

  • I’m so sorry this has happened” [you recognize the event, real or imagined].
  • I know you’re upset and concerned about this” [you acknowledge the emotion].
  • Please allow me to investigate this on your behalf and get back to you” [you offer action].
  • Here’s what I can do for you right now” [you offer something tangible in real time].

Acknowledging the customer’s pain and promising some action keeps the relationship momentum positive . . . or at least rescues it from its downward arc.

When Sorry is Easy: Giving the Customer Good News

Later on, you may be able to tell the customer some “good” news – well, good news for the customer, not necessarily for you.

Perhaps upon completion of a review of the incident, you discover it was indeed your – or your firm’s – responsibility. You now face the inevitability of cost or liability from the error. At this point, there is not much downside to “sorry”.

Sorry as in, “Upon investigation, it turned out that the incident was indeed our error. Again [reminding the customer we have been empathetic all along], we are very, very sorry for this inconvenience. Here’s what we propose to fix this situation…”

When Sorry is Difficult: Giving the Customer Bad News

Or, you may have to deliver some “bad” news. Maybe the error was on the part of the customer. However, at that point at least some trust and good will have been built up and the customer is more likely to be accepting of the outcome. In this sense, you want to express that you’re sorry – empathy – for the distress the incident caused the patron.

This is also a moment of opportunity to exceed the customer’s expectations. For example, you might say, “As I promised [reminding the patron you followed up on your earlier commitment], I checked with our insurance carrier and the vandalism is not covered by us. However, I’ve prepared this report for you on the incident. You can provide this to your own insurer and, of course, I will be available to answer any questions they might have . . .

[. . . Pause for customer acknowledgement and acceptance . . .]

[. . . Continuing . . .] Again, we are terribly sorry this incident has occurred and although we’re not directly responsible, we’d like to offer you [insert something of value here] as a token of our good will.”

Toss Me a Bone?

The token should be something tangible, within your immediate power to deliver and have real value to the customer. Think about what to provide in the context of the future value of that disgruntled patron. A discounted or free month of service? Car detailing?

If monthly parking is $100 per month, maybe give the patron a special rate of $80 per month for five months. This keeps the patron coming back. And if they leave, never to return, it doesn’t cost you anything. Hey, you offered.

Making Things Right Again

Perhaps this is what Wells Fargo and John Stumpf will evenutally do for customers whose trust they betrayed in the recent scandal where Wells employees created fake customer accounts to meet corporate sales goals. Stumpf promised in testimony before the U.S. Senate panel, to make things right,” but didn’t illuminate the path to that destination.

However, Stumpf finally did something he should have done at the very beginning of the crisis: In his opening statement to the panel, he said, I am deeply sorry we failed to fulfill our responsibility to our customers, to our team members, and the American public…I want to apologize to all Wells Fargo customers. I want to apologize for violating the trust our customers have invested in Wells Fargo. And I want to apologize for not doing more, sooner, to address the causes of this unacceptable activity.”

If only Stumpf had said all that at the very beginning, perhaps the reaction would have been more muted, the bank’s reputation would not be in tatters and the institution’s coffers would not be $185 million lighter due to fines and penalties related to the problem.

Bottom Line: Find a Way to Say it

Atlanta-based attorney Ally Fuqua acts as outsourced “in-house counsel” duties ranging from strategic planning, to litigation and contract management for parking industry operators. Fuqua says, “You can be helpful – and sorry – without admitting liability. Be careful how you say you’re sorry, but don’t be afraid to say it.”

(Want more information? Please check out our forums. If you have comments or suggestions for improvements to our content, please share your experiences with us and other professionals visiting our site. Add your comments below – if Comments are “on” – or by contacting us directly here. This post was adapted from an article previously published in magazine or website format. The author retains all second serial and electronic rights. This work has been updated, edited and is distributed by the H2H2H Foundation with the express permission of the author.)

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