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Worldly Wise

Worldly Wise July 2017

Apologies Go a Long Way, but Not Far Enough

By Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.

I recently flew from San Juan to Liberty Airport in Newark, New Jersey. The airplane was late getting to Newark because of a delay in San Juan. To make matters worse, the terminal I needed to reach to continue on to Europe required taking a shuttle bus. The airport was very crowded and that bus was going to take at least ten to twenty minutes we were told. As a result, I was at severe risk of missing my continuing flight on to Frankfurt and Rome.

The airline personnel were simply unequipped to help me solve my problem. They could only offer one solution, “Sorry for the inconvenience caused.”

As I sat anxiously waiting for the shuttle, the gate personnel showed little concern about the growing crowd that clearly wasn’t all going to fit on the bus that still hadn’t arrived. Every 10 minutes or so we listened to announcements about the bus, blasting in our ears, overshadowed only by an icy cold fan that blew on us. Each time, as the delay stretched out longer and longer, the announcer offered an apology, “We apologize for any inconvenience caused.”

Because all carriers were experiencing heavy delays that day, I did make my connection in Newark. In fact, I actually ended up waiting for my plane to depart, but I didn’t know that while waiting for the shuttle bus.

I suspect that many of you have heard the “sorry for the inconvenience” phrase. Perhaps you have heard it so frequently that it has as much impact on you as does the phrase, “Have a nice day.”

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Does anyone truly believe that saying the words, “We apologize for any inconvenience caused,” actually satisfies customers? If the airlines, in particular, think that it is an adequate answer to the poor state of travel—perhaps passengers should start to use it, in kind, on airlines.

When we miss a flight or need to change our reservations, we could say to the airline, “I apologize for any inconvenience caused. Now rebook me at no extra charge.” When we are asked to move out of one line and into another, we could respond, “So sorry for the inconvenience caused,” and remain where we are standing. Passengers who enter the airplane could seat themselves in any available first class seat, and then when asked to move could respond, “I’m not moving, but I am sorry for any inconvenience caused.” When our luggage is overweight, we could simply say, “I’m not paying extra, but you know I am sorry for the inconvenience caused.”

Of course, this wouldn’t work; the airlines wouldn’t allow it.

What’s the solution? For starters, I think airlines—or any service operation, including payroll operations—need to stop using this phrase. When major inconvenience has been caused, a pithy statement like this simply alienates customers.

If your office fails to factor in a significant change in staffing numbers and as a result staff are not paid on time, an insincere “sorry” does little to satisfy customers—or keep their business. When something major happens that is of “inconvenience” to customers, we need to spend some time on an apology. It needs to be big, sincere, and to spell out exactly what that inconvenience was. Only then does the customer know that we are sincerely apologizing for what happened. Only then will the customer, perhaps, accept our apology.

I checked into a New York City hotel some time ago at 1:45 in the morning where I had a confirmed reservation for a late arrival only to hear, “Sorry for the inconvenience caused, but we no longer have a room for you.” The apology didn’t exactly ease my troubled soul at that moment. So, when they then put me in a taxi to another hotel that had no access to it because the street in front of it was being paved, it wasn’t adequate that I was told, “Sorry for the inconvenience caused.” Toting heavy luggage down a long block in Manhattan at 2:00 in the morning is a lot more than inconvenience and to hear a third “Sorry for the inconvenience caused,” did not make me a happy customer.

Serious situations demand more serious language than “inconvenience” language. Service personnel have to seriously ask themselves whether this language would satisfy them or if it would only further alienate them.

Clearly, no apology, no matter how well delivered, by itself will solve service problems. Service organizations first have to have adequate service recovery strategies in place. Only then, can service providers apologize from their heart rather than from a customer service script.

Here’s what the hotel personnel could have said to me when they no longer had a room for me, even though it had been guaranteed with my credit card: “I know this is a very difficult situation for you and totally unfair. I can see you are very tired, and a simple apology isn’t adequate. Here’s what I’m going to do for you to help make this situation a little better.” They needed to accompany me (a single woman traveling alone) to the other hotel (It was 2:00 in the morning in Manhattan!), handle my luggage, pay for my second hotel, and then they could begin to apologize. Even then, their apology must be sincere, strong, and repeated more than once. At that point, I could accept their response. In fact, I probably would have been so impressed at that point, I probably would have insisted on paying for my own hotel.

Remember the consequences. More than fifty percent of the time, when customers have problems and say something about them, they walk away feeling worse than if they had simply left without speaking up. When customers do this, the chances of them returning to your place of business are not strong. From a both a business and a human relations point of view, it makes no sense to avoid adequately solving problems and then compound matters further with meaningless phrases of apology.

What are the things your customers complain about? What are your strategies to recover for your customers? Are those strategies in place and known by all your staff?

Perhaps you should have a sitdown talk with your team to let them know how costly it is to fix complaints and then ruin the impact by expressing sorrow for “inconveniences.” Show some heart to your customers. It’s how you got them to be your customers in the first place—it’s no doubt implied in all your advertising.