Sometimes, Sorry Does Cut It

When companies apologize, people notice.


Individuals don’t recognize most mistakes for what they are until they’ve already made them, but they certainly recognize the fallout. Proactively managing and making up for shortcomings is a complex process, but it starts with a simple word: sorry.

The free market allows consumers to be finicky  and lately, companies don’t get many second chances. Whether it’s a public comment that wasn’t meant to be public, a hastily implemented policy change, or just old-fashioned bad luck, missteps can have a significant impact on your ability to connect with your target audience.

Not every move that elicits negative reactions is a mistake. For instance, credit unions typically see between a three to nine month dip in their Net Promoter Score (a measure of member experience) following a change in their online banking system, said Michelle Bloedorn of Member Loyalty Group at the 2011 CUANM Credit Union Call Center Conference. While these improvements may be painful to adjust to, they typically benefit members down the line.

In cases of true mistakes - where a long range benefit is not likely to play out, or where standards, morals, or performance have fallen short of member’s demands  - a sincere apology is a must have.

If the first step is realizing when to apologize, the second step is apologizing in the right way. Serena Williams’ verbal beatdown on a line judge mid-match left a bad taste in the public’s mouth, but her subsequent apology was too lackluster to wash it out, advises Psychology Today.

Serena's sorry lacked lacked three must-have components, says the magazine:

  • "Expressions of empathy."
  • "Offers of compensation."
  • "Acknowledgments that certain rules or social norms were violated.”

Compensation is seen as especially crucial for non-personal situations (including banking and retail relationships) where consumers keep careful track of what they get in return for their participation or support.

Effective apologies are key to closing the loops on member complaints, says Bloedorn. But they’re the first step, not a "get out of jail free card."

Top rated  Southwest Airlines has received much publicity for the work of its “Chief Apology Officer” and an award-winning corporate blog. Clearly, they know how to do customer service better than their peers. But notice the impact in reader’s comments when SouthWest first explains a controversial event that took place on its flight, then apologizes. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s clear further action is required to fully rectify the situation in many consumers’ minds.

An apology strategy won’t prevent mistakes, but it can be a critical step in recovering from them without leaving lasting scars for the organization.