Apologies (Part 1) – The Issue

Apologies. In the years that I’ve been training and coaching call center Customer Service Representatives (CSRs), there is no single service element that creates more emotional reaction from the front line, more controversy in calibration and more frustration in training/coaching sessions. In fact, for that very reason, I’ve delayed posting about it and have been mulling it over.

There’s an article in this week’s Harvard Business School’s newsletter by Barbara Kellerman that prompted me to get off the dime and talk about apologies. Barbara writes:

We have more anecdotal evidence than hard data on what exactly apologies accomplish. Yet academic research conducted so far does suggest that leaders are prone to overestimate the costs of apologies and underestimate the benefits.

My experience would agree with her summation of the anecdotal evidence. People have strong aversions to apologizing. I have been in training sessions where reps raised their voices (one guy stood up – shouting at me) in protest. In coaching sessions people will cross their arms in obstinate refusal.

So, why such strong reaction?

  • People equate an apology with an admission of guilt. For some, this is a long-held belief that is usually rooted in their family and/or culture. To say the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” is the same as saying “I’m personally responsible for you not receiving your order.”  I have even surmised that, with some individuals, an apology is intertwined with their religious ideas regarding sin, guilt and confession.
  • People believe that apologizing puts them in a position of weakness. If you start with the supposition that an apology is an admission of guilt, then you’ll tend to believe that the admission will put you at a disadvantage with the customer. People think that apologizing leads to the customer saying, “Aha! I gotcha!” In fact, I’ve heard isolated cases of companies making a policy of never apologizing because they believe it puts them in a poor legal position.
  • People have difficulty separating themselves from their role as a corporate representative. To the customer you are Acme Anvils – you are Widgets-R-Us. I’ve found that those who struggle with apologizing often have difficulty making this distinction. They believe that apologizing makes them personally culpable for the customer’s problem. They can’t seem to get to the place of understanding that, to the customer, they are simply a corporate representative expressing regret that the customer’s expectations have not been met.

Apologies, when appropriately understood and delivered, are an essential element in delivering world-class customer service. Yet, it’s one of the most neglected of all service skills. Our Service Quality Assessment typically finds that apologies are commonly missed well over 50 percent of the time they would apply. No other service skill we’ve measured is so consistently ignored.

It’s important for managers, trainers, supervisors and coaches to understand why their front-line agents may struggle with apologizing. We must foster an appropriate understanding of apologies and how they can benefit the customer, the agent and the company.

Next post: Apologies (Part 2) – Definition

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  7 comments for “Apologies (Part 1) – The Issue

  1. May 3, 2006 at 7:24 am

    One of the biggest reasons people don’t apologize is that people hate to lose face. They hate for people to see them as anything else than strong and in control.
    It’s sad because it puts up a wall between you and your customer. Not being willing to say you’re sorry is not being able to admit that you are a fallible human being like your customer.
    The idea that you are not fallible almost leans on the religious idea that you can go to heaven on your own works if you are perfect enough. As far as Christianity goes, if we could be perfect, Christ died for nothing.
    I think the agent that can “I’m sorry” builds an instant rapport with the customer because they have shown themself as human, and more importantly, they have shown the customer that the customer is an equal-that the customer should be treated like a real person with real feelings. When there are no apologies, people feel as if you are “better than them”, and that they don’t deserve the common courtesy of an apology.
    In my center, when I know I have taken too long to do something, I try to make a pre-emptive apology. It really helps smooth things out.
    Then, I will admit that I have said “I’m sorry” when I did not really mean it to calm a customer down. I said “I’m sorry”, but what I really mean is, “I’m sorry you are so stupid.”
    Still, if the customer feels wronged, whether they are stupid or not, their feelings and perceptions are true enough to them, and an apology is still a good way to make them feel better-whether it is sincere or not.

  2. May 3, 2006 at 9:47 am

    I couldn’t have put it better myself, AC. You nailed it. Thanks for sharing your own experience.

  3. May 3, 2006 at 3:44 pm

    Tom, first time to your new blog site. Very helpful postings.
    I continue to see human qualities like apologies as the most longed for and underlooked elements in any companies brand experience.
    Keep creating, Mike

  4. May 3, 2006 at 6:02 pm

    You’re right, Mike. I heartily agree. In a world of increasing technology and lack of human touch (checked in at the airport kiosk lately?) skills like an apology are sorely lacking.

  5. May 24, 2006 at 4:02 am

    I have no problem saying I’m sorry… it’s the reply “I’m sick of hearing people say they’re sorry” or “No you’re not.” I’d really like to say “You’re right, I’m not.”
    ”People have difficulty separating themselves from their role as a corporate representative. ” … I have a hard time playing the role of a fake BSer and blowing smoke up people’s butts if that’s what this means.

  6. May 19, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    It’s all about execution same words but different timing and inflection makes all the difference. You can’t hide sincerity after all

  7. May 19, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Well put, smiles! Thanks for the comment.

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