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Do apologies really work?

“There’s an interest charge on my credit card statement that I don’t believe should be there,” I told the Bank of America customer service rep after going through phone hell to reach a live person. After looking at my account, she gave me an explanation that didn’t make much sense. So I walked her through the statement and, finally, she recognized there was an error.

“Your right, Mr. Schultz,” she admitted. “We’ll give you a credit on your next statement. Now, if there’s nothing else I can do for you today, I’m sorry for any inconvenience.”  Sorry? I doubt it.

That got me thinking about those times in every dealership when things get screwed up, the customer’s expectations won’t be met and he’ll likely be upset when he finds out. Apologizing for a mess is something we hasten to do. It’s a must. But saying “we’re sorry” is now so commonplace one has to wonder if it has lost all meaning. Is the customer calmed or satisfied by it? Can an apology really work anymore?

I’m convinced it can. But it can’t be the mindless and scripted apology I got from the bank customer service rep. Instead, it must begin with the fact that the apology is genuine. You’ve paused for a moment to really feel the disappointment that the customer will feel. You want them to know you’re sensitive to what they’re feeling. So how can you get it done? Here are some thoughts:

First, anyone in the dealership that might have to communicate bad news or deal with an upset customer should be trained to avoid the meaningless “we’re sorry” script. If the apology sounds rote, the situation can escalate and hard feelings can result.

Next, anytime an apology is in order, consider having the dealership owner/GM join the conversation. An apology from the top always demonstrates sincerity and concern and the leader has the authority to go beyond “we’re genuinely sorry” if the situation might warrant.

Such was the case for me Wednesday with Southwest Airlines. I jumped on the computer to check in and it said I didn’t have a reservation from Tampa, Fla., to Cleveland. I called customer service. Cathy quickly confirmed I was definitely booked, but something clearly wasn’t right with the computer records.

“Mr. Schultz, this just isn’t acceptable and I am sincerely sorry this is happening to you,” she said. “I’m going to have to go to a supervisor and I don’t want you to be inconvenienced any more than you already are. So I will personally take care of everything for you and I will call you back when it’s done. And, again, I really want to apologize for this.”

Hanging up, I felt her apology was sincere (if she was reading a script, she should go into acting) and she would take care of me. She and her supervisor did just that and even added priority boarding for my trouble.

So as meaningless as hearing “we’re sorry” can be these days, an apology done right can still be powerful, especially when it gives the customers the feeling (1) it’s genuine and (2) and makes them feel important.

Perhaps a quote from author Maya Angelou sums it up best: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” A lesson all of us in business should remember.


4 comments on “Do apologies really work?

  1. Peter Schrappen

    Norm, I always appreciate your columns. I’m also a big fan of Seth Godin, who covered this subject in 2013. Here’s the blog post on the same subject. Great stuff.

    Peter Schrappen
    Northwest Marine Trade Association

    From his blog:
    Let’s start with “sorry”

    By the time the phone rings, there’s already trouble. When that manager is called or this department is reached, it’s because someone is disappointed, angry or stuck. Illness, broken promises or a real urgency have led to this new conversation even taking place.

    So don’t start with, “[Name of company] mumble mumble” as if there’s a blank slate just waiting to be written on. There’s already a lot of writing on that slate. Don’t demand to know the record number or begin with doubt and an edge of dismissal. Be on our team.

    “It sounds like we’ve got a situation on our hands…” is a fine way to disarm the person you’re about to talk with. He won’t have to spend the first six sentences expressing his anger and urgency, because in less than ten words, you’ve done it for him. Or perhaps, “I’d like to help, if you’ll bring me up to speed…”

    It’s not easy being on the receiving end of a days’-long parade of blame, but no one said it was easy. We asked you to do it because you’re good and because it’s important, not because it’s fun.

  2. Bob Leonard

    Very good article that should be shared with employees. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

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