Saturday, January 17, 2009

Admitting You were Wrong: Thoughts on Apologies and Resolutions

I've had this post title sat in the draft email folder of my iPhone's email box for about two months now. What better time to use it than in the light of Chris Brogan's recent article on saying sorry. In the article 'We're Not Always Superheroes', Brogan highlights the critical importance of apologizing following a service failure. Whilst the arguments raised in Brogan's article are of undeniable significance, I would approach the issue from a somewhat different angle. You see, whilst saying that you are sorry is important, it's only half of the story.

The Position of the Apology
Despite inescapable fallibilities stemming from our being human, within organisations we remain incredibly reluctant to accept responsibility and apologize for service failings experienced by the customer. The fear of negative repercussions is often a significant influencing factor on our likelihood to engage in the admission of guilt (as an aside, Seth Godin covers fear and repercussions fantastically in his his book Tribes; definitely worth a read). Yet despite the potential dent that such an admission may or may not cause to our ego, failure to address the customer's concerns will invariably result in negative word of mouth.

The social media instruments available make ignoring vocalised service failings absolutely inexcusable, and in spite of personal concerns regarding thepotential outcome of the event, it is far better to address the issue at fault and to offer to offer a solution than to ignore it. It is better to give an apology. But whilst the provision of such an apology is the beginning of resolution process for concerns expressed by the customer, saying sorry does not represent resolution in itself. The apology is only half the story.

Actions Speak Louder than Words
If you have absolutely no intention of following up on the actions conveyed to a customer during an apology, my advice will be to avoid the apology all together. If the customer realises that their concerns remain unanswered following the specific identification thereof, then I guarantee that their distaste for your organisation will have been multiplied. Customers convey their concerns for two reasons; to have them addressed or to deter others from future interactions with the organisation. If you fail to address the concern despite having claimed that you would, then your actions will without doubt incur the wrath of the customer; and at a time in which the creation and dissemination of content has never been easier, the repercussions can be catastrophic.

Seeking Resolutions Together
Whilst content creation has never been easier, neither has your organisation's access to market research. Your customers are 'telling' you what they think of your brand through the content which they create online. It is your responsibility to locate these thoughts. This is particularly pertinent when the content created identifies service failings. It is imperative that once such content is located an apology is given, and efforts are subsequently made to craft a resolution with that adequately meets the customer's expectations. If your organisation demonstrates a clear interest in resolving a problem caused by flaws in your operation, then the customer will be significantly more forgiving. Whilst this is not an excuse to allow initial mistakes to flourish, an appropriate resolution system will help to ensure that your organisation's brand equity is not utterly destroyed by mistakes attributable to human error.

Let me be clear; whilst an apology is imperative, it is the subsequent action that will truly influence perceptions of your brand. Make sure that the steps which you take to resolve an issue leave the customer feeling delighted. Otherwise your efforts will backfire, and the results are likely to be ugly...

Show the Rogue some Stumble love


  1. Great point Chris, and one that too many organisations (and individuals) forget about.

    An apology without meaning is no better than a bare-faced liar saying he's your best friend while organising a sleepover with your wife.

    Show me someone that's willing to say they were wrong and I'll give them a chance - but if you blow it, you've blown it for a long time. And time is something that not a lot of people or business's have...

  2. Danny, I just noticed that I forgot to reply to the comment you left at the weekend! Sorry about that... Now I will have to apologize and amend the situation by living up to your expectations!

    Great points though. Let's face it; second chances come by very rarely in today's era of interconnectedness. If you are fortunate enough to be granted one of these rare opportunities don't blow it by failing to live up to the expectations subsequently placed upon you. Whilst second chances are rare, third chances are unheard of...

    There has been abundant research carried out into the effects of falling short of expectations following the verbalisation of a service failure by the customer. The majority of the research suggests that customer feelings of negativity experienced following a service failure are amplified by the organisation failing to adequately resolve the situation. Such an outcome will almost certainly result in the production of negative word of mouth.

    If anyone is keen to learn of some such articles, let me know and I will suggest some reading.