Posted by Sam George

A recent benchmark report from customer service software firm Zendesk reveals that frequently using apologetic or polite vocabulary leads to a drop in customer satisfaction. The report which takes a closer look at behavioural cues of customers and agents found that using ‘sorry’ too frequently lead to a drop in customer satisfaction while ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ had  a positive impact on customer satisfaction.

This presents an interesting topic for debate in a service landscape which lives by adages such as ‘the customer is always right’ and ‘customer is king’. If companies do fail to meet customer expectations, how far should one go down the ‘apology route’ before you start damaging the brand image as well as the customer relationship. The answers are debatable but they would unquestionably have far reaching implications for both the customer experience as well as the brand strategy of an organisation.

These are also interesting scenarios where the lines between Marketing and Customer Service become increasingly blurred. While there needs to be consistency across the customer experience and marketing strategies, it is equally important this consistency percolates down to the grass root levels – reflecting in every customer interaction with the brand or brand representatives.

It is obvious then, that business leaders should lead by example when it comes upholding the customer service and brand ethos of the organisation. An example which comes to mind is that of Netflix which in 2011 split its business into a streaming-only service and a DVD-mailing service, hiking its subscription rates. The strategy was poorly communicated to its loyal customer base, angering them in the process, and presto - the company had a PR debacle in its hand! As a means of damage control, CEO Reed Hastings issued (hastily, presumably) an apology email  which set out to make explanations for the reasons behind the change. But customers were left fuming over the efforts at transparency– many felt they were about to be offered a roll back in prices or possibly some kind of compensation, whereas, others felt the explanation came too late.

I think the take-away is customers don’t want to keep hearing ‘you have messed up’. What they need is closure or ‘what is being done by you to address the issue’. It’s all about the customer perception of the effort being taken by the agent to solve the issue – the higher the perception of this ‘customer representative effort’, the less damage it would do to customer satisfaction.

Also, as People Skills coach Kate Nasser points out, "Customer service and marketing professionals should understand that sorry doesn’t necessarily mean guilty, it means we care. In fact if we are thinking about who is guilty, we aren’t even in the zone of delivering superior customer service and customer experience.” There are important messages here on how to tackle the ‘sorry situation’

  • promote accountability rather than blame
  • give empathy
  • and give ‘commitment to resolve’ the due importance it needs in an apology.

Brands make mistakes all the time and consumers forgive them- they just need to know that effort is being made on their behalf.

How would your business tackle an ‘apology situation’? Feel free to email me or tweet @teamhgsuk

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