J. N. Halm’s thoughts ….Apology Or Appreciation: What to say when things go south


“Sorry. Thank you. Which is better?”
If someone were to ask you this seemingly innocent question, I am pretty sure you will look at that individual with some suspicion. Of course, the answer to whether Sorry is better than Thank You is that it all depends on the context or the situation at hand. There is a time for an apology and there is a time for appreciation. Using one when the other is what is needed can get one into a spot of bother. Who, in their right mind, says “Thank You” when he or she has offended someone? Who shows appreciation to someone who feels offended? Apparently, smart customer service employees do. That is according to a study I recently came across.
Service failures are bound to happen. Sometimes, it feels as if nature unleashes Murphy’s Law in full force. There are certain days when things just refuse to go well. Computers that have been working well the day before can decide to go off without any warning. Systems can develop fault in a matter of seconds. One can step out for a meeting two hours ahead of time and still be late for a meeting with a very important customer. Wonderful, profitable customers can suddenly decide to take their business to the competition. A clear day can suddenly become cloudy and the rains can come pouring, catching everyone off guard and thus causing a well-planned day to go to the dogs. According to those who believe in this law, what can go wrong does go wrong—albeit occasionally.
When those times come, it is important that the business does everything in its power to recover the situation. The importance of service recovery is not something many people would debate against. Although, there are many who doubt the claims of the service recovery paradox, experience shows that there is some truth to its claims. It seems the overall satisfaction levels of customers whose service failures have been satisfactorily remedied exceed those of customers who have not encountered any problems with the initial service. In other words, with a highly effective service recovery, a service or product failure offers a chance to achieve higher satisfaction ratings from customers than if the failure had never happened.
Sometimes, the situation is so bad that nothing can be done to salvage it. Customers will just walk away without ever doing business with that organisation again. On many occasions, however, the situation gets settled and it is at this point that the words that come out of the service employee’s mouth become very important. It is a truism that customers can be very forgiving when things do not go as planned. However, the moment right after something has gone wrong and has been salvaged can be a very tensed moment.
The reason is that when things go wrong, customers are usually not too sure as to what caused the mishap. Is it a deliberate action on the part of the service employee? Is the situation as a result of a genuine mistake? Is it an attempt by the organisation to hoodwink the customer that the customer has found out? These are some of the questions that inhabit the customer’s mind. Therefore, what the customer-facing employee says could either restore the relationship or it could spell doom for the relationship.
It is a no-brainer that when something goes wrong, the customer service employee apologizes. We are taught from our childhood that if we do something that is wrong or offends someone, the first thing we should do is to apologise. It is considered rude to do something wrong and refuse to apologise. As a matter of fact, in customer service, we are taught that sometimes, the customer service employee does not even have to be the one who directly caused the problem. So long as the one has come across the problem, the one must apologise, if for nothing at all, just for the inconvenience caused to the customer.
However, a recent study sought to prove that apologising to a customer when there is a service failure is actually not the best thing to do. The researchers believe the best thing for a service employee to do after a service recovery is actually to say “Thank you” not “Sorry”. According to the study, there are a number of reasons why it is better to say Thank you than Sorry.
For instance, an apology places focus on the customer service employee while an appreciation places the focus on the customer. Placing the customer at the centre of an organisation’s operations should not just be an empty rhetoric. Customer-centrism has proven to be a great way to differentiate an organisation’s offering from those of its competitors. Placing customers at the centre must be a way of life for everyone in the organisation, especially those whose job it is to handle customers directly. A “Thank You for waiting” instead of “Sorry for making you wait” is customer-centrism at the micro-level.
Another reason why “Thank You” works better than “Sorry” is that the latter concentrates on the problem that had occurred whereas the former concentrates on the solution. When someone says sorry, the first thing that comes to mind is that something might have gone wrong. However, when someone says “Thank You”, the assumption is that something good has taken place. In that sense, “Thank You” generates positive emotions while “Sorry” generates negative emotions—and we all know the importance of operating in a positive state of mind.
Appreciating customers as opposed to apologising to customers also indicates that the customer has done something worth appreciating. People love it when their contributions are acknowledged and appreciated. By saying “Thank You” to the customer, the customer service employee is telling the customer that whatsoever he or she did, in the lead up to the service recovery, has been seen and it is appreciated.
Closely related to the thought in the preceding paragraph is what I believe to be one of the most important reasons for appreciating customers just after a service recovery. Appreciation increases the customer’s self-esteem. Self-esteem is a very important component of every individual’s make-up. It has been found to be a great predictor of the one’s achievement and subsequent happiness in life. It has been proven that in many instances, self-esteem trumps natural talent or ability. People with high self-esteem tend to believe that they can do whatever they set their minds to.
When a customer-facing employee says something that increases a customer’s self-esteem, this leads to an increase in the customer’s post-recovery satisfaction. Everybody who has run a business before or ever worked in customer service knows that a truly, emotionally satisfied customer is a treasure for every business. Customer satisfaction is an important requisite for achieving customer loyalty. Every business needs loyal customers if it is to thrive on the market.
From the ongoing, the importance of correct communication in a service setting cannot be any clearer. Businesses must ensure that those they place at the front line to handle customers and the potential issues that can arise know what to say and when to say it. For some organisations, the solution lies in positive scripting. It has been argued that organisations that employ scripting can really set themselves apart from the competition. Even if what the one has to say is not scripted word for word, a customer service employee must have an idea of what to say. Businesses should not assume that their front line staff will say the right things when the time comes. Even if the organisation is totally convinced that those at the front line are smart enough to know what to say, it does not hurt to give some sort of a script that will act as a guide.
It is important to remember that the ongoing discussion relates to when the service recovery process has taken place. The time to appreciate or apologise is very important. Also it is essential to differentiate between two different types of service recovery. The first type of recovery involves what scientists refer as utilitarian exchange. This involves the organization compensating customers with things that have some economic value such as money, goods, or time.
A service recovery effort can also involve just a symbolic exchange. These involves psychological or social resources such as status, esteem, or empathy. It has been found that when companies combine appreciating customers with utilitarian rewards such as money, the recovery is viewed as high recovery and has a lot more beneficial outcomes such as an increase in customer repurchase intentions as well as improved word-of-mouth communication.
For as long as businesses continue to serve customers, there will always be that time when things will not go as planned. Services, by their very nature, are difficult to standardised unlike products. There are too many variables when it comes to services. Therefore, the chances of things going wrong are just too high and so it is inevitable that things will go wrong. When those inevitable times come, the words that would come out of the mouths of those charged with serving customers become very important. These may be just a few words but they could cost the company a whole lot.

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