It’s OK to Say “I’m Sorry” but …

Customer service failures are inevitable. Even the best service providers will not come through for their customers sometimes, whether it is the fault of an employee, a product defect, or some external source. While minimizing errors and failures is a high priority, it is equally important to have clearly defined plans about how to recover. The question of how, when, or even if to say “I’m sorry” is raised by Neil Berman, CEO of email marketing company Delivra. Berman asks if companies are sometimes too apologetic, sending out apology emails for minor transgressions or even sending emails to all customers when an error affected only a few of them.

If an apology is warranted, Berman suggests the following guidelines:
• Be brief and to the point
• Take responsibility; do not make excuses or attribute the error to someone else
• Appearance of an apology email should be similar in appearance to other communications (e.g., use of logo, color scheme, and layout of email)

Berman’s suggestion that some marketers may be over-apologetic served as a pause for reflection on this issue. How important is a proactive apology in service recovery? Is it possible for an apology to fan the flames of customer discontent rather than correct a mistake? My take on this issue is that an apology, particularly if it is a sincere expression and not a scripted response, is a necessary first step in service recovery. However, the words of an apology are secondary to the actions taken to soothe an unhappy customer. An apology with no corrective action or worse yet, another service failure, serves no purpose.

The best rule to follow is AAA service recovery: Acknowledge, Apologize, Act. Begin by acknowledging an error or mistake occurred in a matter of fact way. Then, take responsibility and apologize for any inconvenience or harm experienced by the customer. Finally and most importantly, explain to the customer actions that can be taken (or have been taken already) to correct the problem.

Service failure can set the stage for a heroic recovery that instills customer confidence in your firm. Embrace that possibility by having a plan when it is time to say “I’m sorry.”

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