The Power of Apology

ApologyIf you are in customer service at any level then you probably have experienced a customer being upset with you, another employee, or your company in general. We’ve all gotten that self-defensive tightness, that ‘fight’ part of our brains that gears up for an argument, even if you do restrain yourself. ‘Hey, it’s not my fault’ (whatever ‘it’ may be) or ‘You’re wrong’ may be a couple responses, although in the heat of the moment those responses probably run a lot more colorful in one’s mind.

But in the spirit of getting actual results, many times it’s most beneficial to have the complete opposite approach to the person at the counter or on the other end of the phone line. Taking ownership of the situation can actually save you time and keep cooler heads all the way around.

I’m suggesting that you say you’re sorry.

I know, I know. You’re not sorry. Not really. You had nothing to do with whatever it was and you don’t even know who would actually be responsible for taking care of the situation. But the person on the other end of the phone doesn’t know that. Sure, even if they’re right about being angry, they’re wrong for taking it out on you, but this is a situation where it’s best to remove as much of yourself from the situation as possible. Approach it from an interested observer’s standpoint. If someone were stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire he or she might very well be upset, but they wouldn’t (necessarily) be mad at you. When you are talking to that person, think of your conversation as a means to do something about their problem. You are the ‘face’ of the company in that instance and have the opportunity to turn the situation into a win/win.

Many years ago, I was a customer service rep for a major medical testing company. You’ve probably been to one of their patient service centers. We took a high volume of calls and reps were so stressed out, that our department had the highest turnover rate in the entire company; if I’m remembering correctly, it was something like 20+% of employees quit in their first year. So the company decided to be proactive and have us all train in active listening. What we learned was a lot of patients felt like they weren’t being heard. Like the person on the other end of the line was just rote responses to resolve a situation in 90 seconds or fewer rather than actually considering what the patient was saying and interacting. One of the first things they trained us to do was to summarize what the caller said in his or her initial volley and proceeding from there.

Customer Service

Now, I’m not really writing about active listening, but just a specific part of it; the apology. Nine times out of ten, in my experience, active listening defused situations before they became situations. I’m talking about that tenth customer—you know, the guy who’s gotten a bill over and over and his insurance was supposed to have taken care of it, the woman whose payment was lost, or the little old lady whose blood sample was dropped in the lab and she had to go back for another draw (yes, that phone call happened many times in my day once upon a time).

In 2004, The University of Michigan Health System began to employ what they call the Michigan Model. They have actually been able to reduce the number of medical malpractice claims by offering apologies to the patients affected. Take a moment to consider how powerful an apology can be if it can save a company millions of dollars in legal fees and malpractice suits.

Michigan Model

Think back to the last time you were upset about something. Really steamed. I’d bet that if whoever was responsible had apologized immediately, you’d feel much better, much sooner. And that’s what the person on the phone is looking for. Someone who can tell them that although something has gone wrong, they will take charge and make it right. An apology won’t be the solution to everything, but it’s a huge step in a positive direction.

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