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  • Writer's pictureKelly E. Middleton

Never Ruin an Apology with an Excuse: Concept #15 Recover Well

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

One of the most overlooked yet crucial practices in customer service is the apology. People's egos just don't want to admit they were wrong. However, recovering well when a mistake is made is a crucial practice for any organization in order for customers to not take one bad experience and have it sour them to the organization indefinitely. Recovery is a time-sensitive act with serious long-term consequences when it is not done properly, so it is important to know just what to do when an apology is needed.

When I think of recovery, I recall a great example that I mention in my book Competing for Kids. It's the story of musician Dave Carroll who boarded a United Airlines flight only to look out his window and watch his guitar being mishandled by United employees on the tarmac. As he suspected, his guitar was completely broken when he got it from baggage claim. He futilely fought with the airline to have his expensive guitar replaced, then decided he would write a song about it, titled "United Breaks Guitars," and post it on YouTube. The video went viral with over 18 million views and still United never made the situation right. If you haven't seen the video, it's a very funny sendup of the much-maligned airline. Yet, many customers are not so light-hearted in their public responses to a company or organization failing to apologize appropriately, (I invite you to read the comments below Carroll's video for proof).

A Huffington Post article declares, "Why can’t companies just learn to say, “I’m sorry”!" You would think that this lesson would be learned by now, but sadly we see examples almost daily of excuses, missing apologies and apologies that do not fit the offense. The Huffington Post article goes on to suggest 4 best practices for an organization to apologize in a way that avoids their customers creating viral videos about their terrible customer service.

1. Apologize early and often. Disarming a customer by acknowledging the problem and then reacting to match the severity of the situation can put them in forgiveness mode.

2. Apologize the right way. Listen to the complaint and repeat it back to the customer to make sure they feel heard. Then offer a heartfelt apology that speaks to the exact reason they are upset.

3. Apologize even if it wasn't your fault. Your graciousness will endear the customer and make them respect your brand for owning the entire experience.

4. Avoid the non-apology, or saying "I'm sorry," then giving a reason or excuse for why the problem occurred.

If these sound like common sense, it's probably because we all know what to do when we make a mistake but we don't always follow through. I find this is especially true of employees in organizations. It's easy to pass the buck or not apologize for something someone else did wrong. Public schools can fall into this category very easily. School hierarchy and the various employees at the school can make it easy to just say "not my fault, not my problem." That's the wrong attitude. What we as school leaders should teach and enforce is an attitude of service. That means that no matter the reason for the customer's complaint, every employee must try to remedy the situation and ensure the student/parent/family member does not leave the interaction fuming at the school.

What does a great customer service apology look like in public education? Consider this scenario:

A 2nd grade student has missed the bus twice this school year. You've just received a phone call from the parent wondering where his child is. What would an appropriate apology look like?

In my opinion, this can go one of two ways: the administrator can pass the issue off to the party or parties responsible or she can resolve it personally. To me, the fact that this is the third time the school has failed to get this student from their building to the bus signals this is a make or break moment for this parent's relationship with the school. Once can be forgiven, twice and they may not trust you anymore but three times and you could very well lose this 2nd grader. A school leader who knows how to apologize to fit the problem would take that student herself, drive that student home, look the irate parent in the eye and say, "I'm so sorry we didn't fix this problem. I cannot begin to imagine how scary it must be for you to see the bus pull up and Susie not be on it. I'm sure you were worried sick until you found out she was still at school. I assure you this will not happen again. I will personally make sure she is on the bus and that the teacher, bus monitor and bus driver all know to look for her each day before the bus leaves the school. Here is my card with my personal cell phone number. Please call me if you need anything. Again, I apologize for this mistake."

A response like this is your best chance at salvaging the relationship and trust of this parent. It's important to own the mistake on behalf of the school and make a humble, heartfelt apology, then promise the parent you will remedy the situation, but even if something goes wrong, they can contact you directly. In my experience, this is a magical formula. It may not work every time, but it gives you a fighting chance.

Some people might say they just do not have that much time to make a correct apology. Others will let their own egos get in the way of correcting the situation—they need to prove that they are right or that they are in charge. Yet, the price could be lots of bad publicity or long senseless legal battles. I can apologize even if I believe I am correct if it will stop 18 million critical views on YouTube or a major lawsuit. 

Administrators should consider the idea of recovery training for all employees to ensure that those times when a parent, student or family member has a customer service issue and it does not go directly to you or another administrator, the situation will be handled in the appropriate manner. A bonus is that when your employees can successfully diffuse an angry customer, it's less work for you!

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