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What’s so hard about saying sorry?

Daniel Marsh16 July 2019

It’s a funny word — “sorry.”

As a British person, it’s practically bred into us at birth to use it in every sentence. But although we use it every day as individuals, for years it’s been fairly standard business practice to avoid using it wherever you can.

In fact, it’s led to a whole industry of people spending their days working out ways to say it without actually… saying it.

It’s something I’ve been reflecting on recently based on, as is often the case, my experience as a customer of another business.

Holding your hands up

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been having some work done at our flat, which included getting a new carpet fitted.

The company gave a one-week delivery window for the carpet. When the week came and went, I chased them up with a few calls. And when I eventually got hold of someone, they informed me that, ‘due to a manual error’, the order hadn’t been placed at all.

They gave no apology — just a statement of fact that the order hadn’t gone through. I wouldn’t have found out if I hadn't picked up the phone, either.

It leaves you in a funny place as a consumer. Part of you wonders if you made a mistake somewhere along the way, and are somehow at fault. But mainly you feel frustrated, angry and unlikely to ever repeat your custom.

The above is just one example, but it’s something we as consumers encounter all the time. By apologising to their customers, companies seem to be worried that they’re in some way admitting liability — potentially compromising their relationship with their customer even more.

It’s how we end up with those gloriously frustrating ‘sorry not sorry’ statements like ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’, ‘I appreciate your frustration, but…’ or ‘this is out of our hands’ style statements.

Of course, this experience isn’t limited to carpet providers. It’s event right across the business spectrum: from energy to finance, telecoms to travel. It’s an attitude that, I believe, comes from the days before an empowered consumer — when your customers were signed up for life and the process of switching was a fate worse than death.

But times have changed.

Giving customers control

Technology has played a major part in this shift. The modern customer has the ability to compare in an instant, voice dissatisfaction publicly and vote with their feet faster and more easily than ever before.

Technology has also made it easier for new players to enter the market and challenge incumbents.

This is great for us as consumers: we’re in the middle of a powerful venn diagram – with more choice on the one hand, and greater ease of switching on the other. But it’s a total nightmare for companies that haven’t changed how they view their customers.

And I’d argue that those who hate to say sorry fall into that category.

We’re all human

The bottom line is that it’s okay to get things wrong. It happens to all of us. And it’s good for a business to say sorry.

First, it lets your customer know that you understand you made a mistake. Secondly, it flags to the wider business that something hasn’t worked out. This creates a great force for change because it becomes a priority to make sure it doesn’t happen again — so that you don’t have to apologise to another customer on the same issue.

In our office, we have an internal log of every time we think we didn’t get it quite right for customers, regardless of whether they mention it to us or not.

Culturally, we consider it a good thing when people raise problems and only start to worry if we don’t see things getting added. The list gets discussed regularly by the whole team, and we focus on how to solve the mistakes we have already made to make sure we don’t make them again.

It also helps to create a completely transparent working environment. Because if we’re practising openness and honesty internally, it makes it much easier to practice what we preach with our customers.

So in many ways, sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word. It should be your favourite.

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