How do you feel about saying sorry?
It’s natural not to enjoy it, though it can be cathartic.
But in business, it’s going to happen from time to time, and how you handle it is really important, for your wellbeing, that of your customer, and for your reputation.
Recently I ran an open training course and while most of the delegates were really pleased with the way the day went, one was not.
He was super-polite but he rated it a two out of a possible six.
He listed the specific reasons for his disappointment, referred to his own experience as a trainer, and mentioned that he had spent his own money to attend.
Not a happy man.
I felt I owed him an apology, at the very least, plus some sort of recompense. Here’s what I did and I have structured my tale into 12 ideas to help you next time you find yourself with an unhappy customer:
1. Act quickly
Don’t delay while you consult legal, HR, compliance, your boss and the guy who waters the plants.
The longer you wait before acting the more disgruntled your customer is going to get. They took the trouble to complain (which most do not), so this is an opportunity for you to build bridges not burn them.
2. Acknowledge their feelings
Whatever the truth of the matter, feelings, as an ex-CEO of BT once told me, are facts. So make it clear in your letter or email that you understand how they feel.
3. Thank them for taking the time to write
Thank them for complaining? Are you crazy?! No, not really. Thanking somebody is a good way to establish rapport. And you need all the rapport you can get right now.
Plus they have done you a massive favour. By complaining they have alerted you to a problem with your product, service or delivery. Not everyone would be so helpful.
4. Give reasons, not excuses
Children tend, in my experience, to try to wriggle out of their responsibilities. “He started it!”, “It was an accident!” and “I forgot you told me not to!” being three of the best candidates for induction into the Lame-O Excuses Hall of Fame.
But we are adults. We must accept responsibility. So by all means explain why what happened happened. But don’t try to make it seem as though it was nothing to do with you.
5. Make a reasonable and affordable offer to put things right
In the case of my unhappy customer, I offered him some personal coaching so we could work together on improving his copywriting. I explained what I normally charged and he was happy with the offer.
If somebody has bought a £3.99 stationery item from you and it didn’t work, offering a hand-tooled executive leather briefcase is neither appropriate not necessary. If someone bought a £399 million stationery business from you and it had undisclosed debts of £25 million, you’d better be ready with something substantial.
6. Remember that they did, initially, want to buy from you
The other word in the phrase “unhappy customer” is “customer”. This is someone whom you had, initially, convinced to buy from you. They believed in you and your product. Now they are disappointed.
But they are disappointed because your promise didn’t come true, not because it did. This is a solid foundation to build on.
7. Use everyday language
When you are apologising, you are, or should be, speaking from the heart. Your customer almost certainly is. So this is not the place for showy language. Write as if you were apologising to a friend. This will work.
8. Absolutely, definitely no jargon
Was your customer let down by one of your engineers? Please don’t tell them the delay was still within the time window specified in your SLA (service level agreement).
And you are not a lawyer (if you are a lawyer, you aren’t one for the moment). So avoid the temptation to slip into legalese, with phrases like “without prejudice” or “duty of care”.
9. Use the active voice
“It is regretted that our service was found to be unsatisfactory”. Just one word. No.
10. Use the specific word “sorry”
Here’s where get to the crunch. You could say “I would like to offer my sincere apologies for what happened” but it lacks the very sincerity it professes to embody.
What your customer wants to hear, what any unhappy customer wants to hear, is that you are sorry.
11. Write in the first person singular
It doesn’t matter whether you are the CEO, the Customer Services Manager or a contact centre worker, if you take the complaint, it becomes your personal responsibility. “I am sorry” is what you write, not, “We are sorry”.
“I” is personal, “we” is “impersonal. “I” says “I am sorry”, “we” says “we are not sorry”.
12. End by thanking them again
Close your letter by reiterating your thanks. This leaves them with a positive sentiment.
And I’m telling you this because
How you deal with your mistakes reveals your character far better than how you deal with your triumphs. Making mistakes is a fact of life. So when it happens you need to drop the corporate shield and respond to your customer as a human being. Even, or especially, if they are angry as well as unhappy.
Remember, also, that unless you have personally caused your customer’s unhappiness through some act of vindictiveness, they are not upset with you for being you, but for being a representative of your company. To quote The Godfather: “This isn’t personal, it’s business”.