The power of an apology

June 17 2010 by Ellen Roseman

The Globe and Mail didn’t show up at my door last Saturday. I called circulation and when the robotic voice said, “I’m sorry for your inconvenience,” my anger disappeared.

Here I was talking to a machine, but I still felt better to have my feelings recognized and acknowledged.

I’d advise companies to apologize early and often. Make customers know you care. Be sincere. Don’t be cavalier or hypocritical.

BP’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, said in Washington today: “We care about the small people.” Later, he said he was “very sorry” for speaking clumsily. Nothing worse than having to apologize for your apology.

Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor of behavioural economics, talks about the power of an apology in his new book, The Upside of Irrationality.

He describes a hair-raising experience with a new car whose engine conked out on the highway. The people in Audi’s customer service angered him with “their clear lack of concern and their strategy of playing a game of attrition with me.”

Later, when he picked up his car from the repair shop, the head mechanic told him, “Sorry, but sometimes cars break.” That had a surprisingly calming effect, he says.

I suspect if the customer service representative had said, “Sorry, but sometimes cars break,” and had showed some sympathy, the whole sequence would have played out very differently.

Could it be that apologies can improve interactions and soothe the instinct for revenge in business and in personal exchanges?

Ariely got his revenge. He wrote a fictional case study in the Harvard Business Review and sent a copy to the head of customer service at Audi, along with a note saying that the article was based on his experience. He never heard back from him.

Do you have stories about corporate apologies that made you feel better? Do you think that if CEOs ignored their lawyers and said they were sorry when they made mistakes, customers would feel less need to take revenge?

5 comments

  1. Veronica

    Jun 17 2010

    Years ago, the office photocopier went down during a huge job with a tight deadline. The service provider’s receptionist was kind and professional, acknowledging my stress and keeping me informed of the repairman’s estimated time of arrival.

    What an important but undervalued position!

  2. Lior

    Jun 17 2010

    I don’t think so. Thanks to you, Ellen, I’ve had several billing problems escalated to Bell’s Executive Office. The staff over there speak very nicely and apologize for any inconvenience.

    I don’t feel it’s a personal apology, I really don’t. After all, when you’re a customer of such a large enterprise you’re just a number. And that’s why I don’t care for any of their excuses. Just as long as I get what I want.

  3. James

    Jun 19 2010

    If someone told me, “Sorry, but sometimes cars break.” I would think it to be a rather flippant, condescending remark. Hardly a sincere apology!

  4. Raj

    Jun 25 2010

    I had a run in with The Brick recently and was appalled by their way of handling it.

    I’m thankful to Ellen from Toronto Star for her part in resolving it, but I could have been happier if they had honored what they promised rather than the refund they decided to issue (not received yet).

    I bought some furniture and appliances worth over 11K from Brick about three years back including a blanket coverage for 5 years at a cost of $450. These include coverage for mechanical and physical malfunctions including stains.

    When I had problems with one of the sofa/loveseat set, I called them to get it fixed and to do a cleaning as it had some stains on it. They sent a third party to look into it and this person refused to work on it, claiming that I need to get it cleaned professionally before they can fix the mechanical issue.

    I called Brick to notify that I have the warranty which covers the stains. They came back to me with a hidden clause saying that I have to get it cleaned professionally first and if that doesn’t work, they will look into it further.

    I was surprised and even went to the higher ups trying to sort this out, but to no avail.

    I contacted the consumer protection branch under the ministry of consumer affairs and they were of the opinion that I could not do much with it and suggested to go through small claims court.

    I contacted Toronto star and through Ellen’s help they agreed to refund the money for the warranty and cancel the remaining warranty on all what I bought.

    I was not completely happy with it as I expected them to fix the problem and maintain a good relationship as should have been the case of a customer related business entity of this nature.

    I felt that they didn’t really care about my concerns at all and didn’t feel like they felt the importance of maintaining a clientele.

    The manager for dispute resolution and legal support was nice enough to refund the warranty but it would have been nice if they had made an effort to fix the issue and apologize for the mishandling of the incident.

    This would also cost them a lot less than the refund and they would have had a satisfied customer who wouldn’t mind spending more in their store.

    Now they have a disgruntled customer who might never step into their store again, not to mention all the negative publicity they will receive because of this.

  5. Skylin

    Jul 3 2010

    Two years ago my fiance and I stayed at the Days Inn in downtown Edmonton, AB for three nights because his sister was getting married nearby. There was a small sign displayed prominently on the room’s desk that stated that if anything should not be up to your (the customer’s) satisfaction, the Days Inn would give you one night free.

    We were on the third floor of this hotel and on our first morning had a very cold shower; no matter how high the tap was turned, the water never warmed up to a comfortable level. We thought this was an anomaly and told the front desk so that they could fix it. We were told that the hotel often had trouble with the water temperature on the upper floors. The next morning when we went to have showers, the water was still cold so we went to the front desk and asked them what they could do for us. They gave us a room key to a room on a lower level and told us to shower there. We had to do this for our third and final morning as well.

    I did not like the inconvenience of having to drag all of my shower stuff to a different room as well as having to wander around a hotel, running into people early in the morning. I voiced my complaints and brought up the little sign and its guarantee. The front desk clerk stated that as it was a Sunday, I would have to call on a weekday to talk to the manager. I did as they said and called sometime during the next week. The manager was rude and argumentative, wanting to know why we stayed if the quality was so poor. I told her that we stayed because we needed to be downtown for the wedding and that because there was a ComicCon going on at the same time, the hotels were booked up downtown. Long story short: I had to call the Days Inn 3 or 4 times before I finally got reimbursed for the one night promised on the little sign. The representative from the Days Inn was very rude every time I talked with her, implying that I shouldn’t be so picky about where I shower. She never once apologized for the faulty water heating system. I felt that the attitude was unnecessary and the difficulty in getting what was promised on the sign was ridiculous. I no longer stay at any Days Inns due to the way I was treated. I also tell all of my friends and family to avoid the Days Inn whenever possible because it just is not worth the lower price. Had the manager been nice, apologized, and just given the refund when I initially asked, my fiance and I would still stay at the Days Inn.

    Apologies count for a lot, even if they are just a canned, corporate line. They acknowledge that your complaint is legitimate. Follow through on promises is even more important though. All the apologies in the world won’t make up for a company’s failure to act.