The Power and Folly of Sorry
As I stood waiting in line to register at a hotel, I had time to think about the often uttered but seldom meant “I’m sorry.” Contrary to Elton John’s assertion (“Sorry seems to be the hardest word,”) this one customer service agent seemed to be a master at it. He would draw closer to the customer and quietly say “I’m so sorry.” Every once in a while he’d add the words “for your inconvenience.” If the customer was really irate he might even offer them a free soda or chocolate bar.
When I finally reached the front of the line I’d resigned myself to receiving the “sorry” treatment, so instead of complaining I asked about the circumstances that led us to wait 20 minutes to check in. After all, this was clearly peak check-in time. While Richard was processing the necessary paperwork I learned that he was a management trainee. The understaffed registration desk was common practice. Part of Richard’s training was to be able to appease angry customers and to handle the pressure of high volume service. It was company policy to save a little money by making the customers wait a little longer. The larger corporation, to which I was reluctantly referred was well aware of this problem but had chosen to gamble that customers wouldn’t be angry enough to leave. Maybe a few would choose a different hotel chain but that wouldn’t hurt them in the short term. What it did to long term profits obviously wasn’t a priority.
I remember seeing a similar situation when I visited a transportation department where I observed that the strength of the organization seemed to be how well people apologized. They recognized that empathizing is an essential aspect of the process for successfully dealing with complaints. They didn’t come across as insincere, even though they were resigned to repeating this process day after day. It would have been easy, given all their service problems, to offer a flippant “sorry” which could easily be interpreted by the customer as “sucks to be you.” Instead, like Richard, they also got really good at apologizing. However, as with Richard, they did not feel empowered to break out of this cycle.
The resources, structure, or culture of the department didn’t allow any of these people to fix the problems which led to the apologies. For example, instead of adjusting routes so they ran on time, they sent out “sweeper” buses to pick up the students who missed the bus because the bus was often late. They wasted dozens of hours bouncing angry customers up the organizational charts and apologizing to their “higher ups” about the poor service.
It took only a slight change of organizational structure and a pretty significant change in organizational culture to address this “sorry syndrome.” Once the culture changed, the amount of resources required actually decreased. You don’t have to spend more to provide quality service. Rather, you need to be focused on fixing problems – not symptoms. Empowering staff to be problem solvers turned out to be more rewarding for both them and the organization. Now when they have to say “sorry” they don’t just feel empathy, they feel frustration. And they use that frustration to drive service improvements.
Richard’s miserable situation has inspired me to review my department’s practices. That transportation department I visited was my department. Those “apologizers” are my co-workers. Are they still as empowered to solve problems or have they started relying on sorry apologies? How about your organization? Try this easy exercise. Have your office staff count how many times they have to apologize for an entire day. Total these numbers and report out in a staff meeting. If the number has grown or shrunk significantly discuss why. If it hasn’t, discuss why not. Either way there is something to learn. You can step up your customer service by focusing on reducing the need for apologies instead of mastering apology skills. Please drop us a line to share your results.