Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I'm Sorry... So Sorry

Dealings I've had with two different businesss recently have me wondering the same thing... why do people have such a hard time saying I'm sorry?

Our lives are filled with relationships. Husbands and wives. Parents and children. Supervisors and employees. Service providers and customers. The list goes on an on. Every interaction we have in each of these relationships shapes how that relationship will progress in the future. Each dealing is important. And we're bound to foul things up somewhere along the way. That's just one of the by-products of our sinful nature. I think the easiest (and oftentimes the most successful) resolution to issues that come up is a simple "I'm sorry". And yet those two little words get said so rarely.

I spent some time the other day trying to wrap my head around why this is such a hard thing for so many people to do. I'll be Captain Obvious (not to be confused with Captain Awesome, which is totally different) and say that I think it's often a matter of pride. Apologizing is in essence humbling yourself before someone else, which can really crush the ego. Few things can make you feel so low as telling someone you made a mistake, are deeply sorry for it, and will now work to fix it. I've been in that position many times before and it's not an easy thing to do. Heck, my mom has "forced" my siblings and me to apologize and hug on many occasions. Even if it didn't solve the problem, the awkward side hugs (we're not especially touchy feely in my family) at least lightened the mood. But I'll admit that it's a struggle to say you're wrong to someone that you'll be dealing with for the rest of your life.

So while I can empathize with finding it difficult to apologize to family or friends, I don't understand the fear/shame/whatever in apologizing to a customer. I can honestly say that I have no problem with relaying to a customer that I'm sorry things aren't working out for them, that I'm sorry things are moving slowly, and even that I'm sorry for having made a mistake. I'll likely never deal with them again, so my aim isn't long-term. I'm focused solely on the short-term goal of easing their frustration and moving forward with the process. The best way I've found to do that is with a simple "I'm sorry."

But so many companies don't do that, at least not with any regularity. Like many companies out there mine offers a (mandatory) customer service training program. These programs are all the same: they have hokey names like "Delighting Customers" or "How to Wow", they pull you away from your desk for a day or more while work is still piling up and they generally provide no new concepts to their participants. That said, I was introduced to a new concept at the most recent such training I received a few months ago. I don't have the book with me (must have been put in the circular file), but the chapter was called something like this... How to Never Say I'm Sorry.

Yup, you read that right. We were actually trained to not say I'm sorry. The idea was that saying I'm sorry doesn't actually solve anything. It doesn't create progress. It doesn't accomplish what the customer wants, which is the error to be fixed. Having just had some yard work done that didn't match the contract requirements, and having also had nearly $2000 charged to my credit card by mistake, and having had both errors resolved without a hint of an apology, I can honestly say that someone uttering those two little words would have made all the difference for me. The problem was going to get resolved no matter what, I'd have made sure of that. All I wanted was for the company to not act as if they were patronizing me by fixing it and just apologize for their oversight.

The training I received was correct in that saying "I'm sorry" wouldn't literally solve any problems. Some other action was definitely going to be needed. But those two things don't have to be mutually exclusive. Sometimes apologizing (coupled with resolving the error) can mean all the difference between someone who continues to frequent your company and becomes a loyal customer and someone who trash talks you every chance you get. I for one am all about customer retention and so will continue to utter those two little words when necessary.

So... what about you? Does your company have a similar no apologies rule? Do you have a hard time saying I'm sorry? Do you find it harder/easier in personal situations as opposed to work situations? I'd love to hear from you...


marie said...

Excellent post! It would seem that those awkward hugs weren't wasted.
I definitely find it easier to apologize in the work place ~ to the clients. It's a little tougher when it's a co-worker, harder still when it's a friend and really difficult when it's family. You're right ~ there's something about humbling yourself before those that know you the best. I's the hardest, but it's the most important.
Thanks for the food for thought....

Jo said...

Good topic. That has always bugged me - when businesses or whoever (in a business setting) is at fault refuses to say "I'm sorry". We went to a customer service training thing at my company too. They gave us steps for how to resolve things and the first step was apologize. At work, I apologize for just about everything that doesn't go right (I'm sorry for the confusion, I'm sorry for the delay) even if it isn't my fault. But, like Marie, I find it's harder to say I'm sorry to family and friends.

Regina said...

Great post Katie. I'm not aware of any corporate direction one way or the other as far as my company goes. I know for me personally, I'm not afraid to say "I'm sorry." It's amazing how those words can immediately bring down a hot situation. Even if saything them doesn't necessarily change things, I think people want to know that their complaint/inconvenience/hurt is heard, and that on some level it matters.

I find "I'm sorry" harder to say when I'm emotionally invested in a situation and I don't think that I'm in the wrong. But I've learned that sometimes it's worth being "the bad guy" if it helps a situation move forward. But if extending an olive branch and humbling myself *doesn't* help (especially if it just causes the other person to feel justified in their anger)...that's a tough pill to swallow.

Amanda said...

I'm willing to own it when I screw up. I think when you own it and apologize, you validate the other person's feelings and it is easier to move past the reason you need to apologize in the first place. When you shuffle the blame to other or never acknowledge there was a problem or try to show why you were *really* right, it just ticks people off.

If you screw up, own it, and move on. It's really pretty simple. I do this in my personal life and with my business as well.

Amanda said...

What good is an apology when the "customer service" foreign accent is so thick that you can't understand a word they are saying!

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