In the world of service and experience, it is not a matter of if things will go wrong. It is more of when things will go wrong. The unexpected is almost always lurking around the corner, trying to catch you off guard, especially when things are most inopportune. And when things do not go according to plan, it is crucial that the organisation tries to recover from the unfortunate situation to make things right, or in the very least, attempts to make things right.
One of the staples in every service recovery process is an apology. Aptly defined as “regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure, with an accompanying expression of that regret,” an apology consists of an expression of remorse, an admittance of wrongdoing, and an offer of empathy. An apology is mostly expected of civilised societies. Basic human courtesy expects people to apologise when things do not go according to plan.
A sincere apology has been found to increase the credibility of the one apologising in the eyes of the one being apologised to. In the world of business, the need for an apology, when things do not go according to plan is most important. When customer service does not go according to plan, it is expected that those rendering the service apologise for the service mishap.
It has been proven that the quality of the apology has an effect on the satisfaction level of customers as well as their repurchase intentions. A good apology can do so much for the quality of the relationship between the customer and the organisation. It has been found that there are certain customers who would not even accept a resolution to a service mishap, if the service recovery is not accompanied by a genuine apology.
Important as they are in the normal functioning of society in general and business in particular, it is important to appreciate the fact that all apologies are not created equal. They are apologies and there are effective apologies—and sometimes, what separates the latter from the former is more than just the content of the apology. It has been found that the timing of the apology can be as important as—if not more important than—the content of the apology.
The issue of timing of an apology after sometimes goes wrong in the process of serving customers is whether to apologise immediately after the service mishap or to wait for the customer to complain before apologising. The former is what is referred to as a Pre-emptive Apology whereas the latter is what is called a Responsive Apology. The Pre-emptive Apology is what we are all taught to apply whenever things do not go according to plan. Apologise before the customer complains, so we are told.
In my experience, any issues with the Pre-emptive Apology could stem from the fact it might come across as merely reactionary as opposed having been really thought through. When something goes wrong with the service being rendered, a Sorry is something that is expected. Therefore, sometimes, the Sorry loses its essence. When the customer feels the customer-facing employee is just saying Sorry because it is expected of the one to do so, the Sorry loses some of its impact.
Another problem with the Pre-emptive Apology, that seems hastily put together, is that it might come across like the employee is really not interested in the views of the customer. The Pre-emptive Apology can look like a canned, rehearsed response to the situation. It might feel like the employee is just brushing the customer’s sentiments away—and that is always a recipe for losing a customer’s business.
It has also been said that the Pre-emptive Apology might mean that the organisation has already-established service recovery systems. It is suggested that if the employee apologises immediately, it stands to reason that something is immediately going to be done about the situation. The customer’s assumption is that an immediate apology will be followed by an immediate solution to the problem. By and large though, the Pre-emptive Apology can backfire, especially for customers who want to talk about the situation.
However, it becomes a different story when the apology is rendered after the customer has said all that is on her heart. When the customer is allowed to speak out and the service employee listens and listens well, any apology after that is deemed genuine and well thought through. Customers feel respected when their views are heard before they are apologised to.
The timing of an apology is of such importance that some considerable work has been done on the matter. The results of one of such studies was published in the September 2020 edition of the Marketing Letters journal. The paper was titled “Timing of Apology after Service Failure: The Moderating Role of Future Interaction Expectation on Customer Satisfaction”.
The aforementioned study argued that in situations where the customer expected to continue doing business with the organisation in question, the better approach would be to go the way of a Responsive Apology. In such a situation, one should allow the customer to complain, hear the customer out, before making any form of apology.
The use of the Responsive Apology when the expectations of future interactions are high is indeed apt. If the customer is to have a happy lifelong relationship with the business in general and that specific employee in particular, then it is important that the views, opinions, likes and dislikes of the customer are known from the onset of the relationship.
One way to get to know the customer well is to hear the customer out when the one has something to say. This is a very good reason why it is important to allow the customer to talk, vent, complain and even insult before an apology is rendered. The last thing the customer wants is for the same incident to repeat itself in the future, which is why the customer wants to be sure that you really know what they want and what they do not want. If the customer did not care about the future of the relationship, such a customer would not even bother trying to voice out any concern.
There are those times when certain customers would not even accept an apology, until they have had the opportunity to voice out their sentiments. This makes sense when one gives it some critical thinking. Because if the customer has not made her views known on the matter, the question is, what is the service employee really apologising for? What is the one sorry for? Does it not make sense of the customer to tell you how she is feeling, so that when you apologise, you have something concrete to apologise for?
The above-mentioned study, however, reported that when the customer’s expectation of dealing with the organisation is very low, the Responsive Apology is really not the way to go. As a matter of fact, if the customer does not expect to deal with the business again, waiting for the customer to complain before apologising might actually be a bad move. In other words, when the situation is such that the customer-facing employee might not come across that customer again, then the scientists in the afore-mentioned study are saying, it is better to apologise once the negative incident happens. Waiting for the customer to vent before apologising would take too much time to achieve service recovery. The earlier the apology comes, the better.
A case in point would be that of tourists visiting a country for the first time and with no plans of coming back or not knowing if they would ever come back. In that case, if something does not go well in the course of delivering the service, the employee serving the tourist must apologise immediately.
Business has led me to a couple of interesting places in this world. The sunny Arab Emirate of Fujairah and the picturesque Punjabi city of Pathankot are just two of those places that come to mind. I very much doubt if I will ever go back to those places. If the findings of the above study are anything to go by, then if something had gone wrong in those places, those providing service should have immediately apologised to me.
Since there is really no hard and fast rule about which apology type to adopt, it has been suggested that there is a third option beyond just the Pre-emptive and Responsive types of apologies. This third way is to apologise multiple times during the post-incident interaction. The employee can apologise immediately the issue is brought up. The customer can then be urged to voice out her views and then subsequently, another apology is rendered. Adopting this approach can indeed help regain the customer’s trust, especially if it is done in all genuineness and followed by a resolution of the problem.
The need for customer-handling employees to apologise to customers for one service mishap or another will always be there. Bad things occasionally happen. However, as this ongoing discussion suggests, the timing for any apology must depend on the context, the context here being the expectations of the customer. Whether immediate or delayed, the apology must suit the situation at hand. A professional service and experience professional must not just apologise because something has gone wrong. A wrongly-timed apology, without considerations of the customer’s expectations, would indeed be an apology of an apology.