Great Customer Service Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

When dealing with customers, here's why companies need to do away with saying sorry.
September 12, 2011

One of the biggest myths of customer service is that companies simply need to listen to customer complaints and then fix them. Most executives believe that every company needs to react quickly to concerns since there will "always be problems." The common advice they give their staff is to simply fix what is broken. As a result, customers will be satisfied and stay loyal to your company.

The first asssumption is correct. Customers do want to be listened to when they are unhappy. A report released by American Express last year said that customers are looking for more engagement. This is why Jim Bush, Executive Vice President of World Service at American Express stated that “We are increasingly hiring customer-care professionals from nontraditional call-center backgrounds, like hospitality, who know how to build strong and lasting relationships with customers.” As with any phase of business, relationships are built by actions over a longer period of time.

So, after a team member listens to the customer concern, what is the next step? 

In late August, I spoke at a swanky resort in Northern Utah. When I arrived at 1:30 p.m., I tried to check in. They said they were “sorry,” but the room would not be ready until 2:30 p.m. When I asked if there was Internet access in the lobby, they said, “No, sorry.”

When I arrived back at 2:30 to check into my room, it still wasn’t ready. They said they were “sorry.” When I was finally able to check into my room—sometime after 3:00 p.m. with a bellman—they gave me the wrong key. I called the front desk for a replacement and they said they were “sorry.”

The next morning at breakfast, I was the only person in the restaurant. I waited for the server for 10 minutes, and when they did not arrive, I asked the hostess where they were. She said she would try to find her and that she was “sorry” for the waitOf course, when the server approached the table five minutes later she was “sorry” for the delay.

Their multiple apologies did not remedy the situation. They simply left me the impression that the service at this resort was pathetic.

When dealing with customers, the word “sorry” maybe effective the first or second time. But around the fifth time it shows how inept the company really is at providing what they promised. Continually making customer service mistakes is not cured by saying “I am sorry.” In fact, great customer service means never having to say you’re sorry. It should never come to this.

William J. Levy, CEO of BMOC, Inc, who manages on campus housing for universities, says that customers don’t want “I’m sorry, they want the company to take action and find a solution right now!” In other words, I know you are sorry, but what are you going to do to remedy the situation and ensure that it does not happen again?

Most problems can be anticipated before they happen through a carefully tested process, trained staff and constant feedback from your customers. Shortcut any of these steps, and you will be sorry.

How do you react when a business says "I'm sorry"?