Our Culture of Apology

(image via Rye Jessen)

(image via Rye Jessen)

I don't know about you but a phone call for help on any service or technical matter usually leaves me more frustrated than when I started the conversation. It seems that the typical service motto (and insert your favorite airline carrier, phone or computer company here) is, "We're not happy till you're not happy." Their lack of empathy and competency is sometimes staggering.

But of all the things that bother me, the worst is that business has become known for the meaningless apology. In a recent conversation with a large phone company, in which my PDA was yet again not working, the technical support representative said either, “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” twenty nine times in a thirty minute phone call. That’s almost an apology once a minute! To make matters worse, it was clear he didn’t really mean it, and that his apology was scripted and only intended to quell my frustration. I later learned this same phone company trains their people to say, “I’m sorry” for every expression of frustration because their focus group data suggests this is what customers want.

I think this is absolute nonsense. A meaningless apology is hollow at best and manipulative at worst, and at least for me generates the exact opposite response. I see it as nothing more than a pre-emptive strike. “Look”, I want to say. “When I am upset, I may not be a box of chocolates but I am not horribly, abusive either. I understand certain business realities. But when that fake apology comes my way, over and over, it does nothing but ignite my anger. It all feels so disingenuous.”

I think this is a good reminder to remember that meaningless apology, while a cliché in the world of service, does not have to become a part of your own behavior. A way of making sure it doesn’t is to include three things in every apology. First, say what you are sorry about—be specific and transparent. Second, say what you have learned from the issue or interaction and how you have been impacted. Third, be clear about what you are committed to doing differently next time. If you do these three things, your chances of staying out of apology mischief, i.e. using apology to manipulate others, will be greatly reduced.

At the end of the above phone call, I told the technical support rep how many times he had apologized during our conversation. What did he say in response? You guessed it.

CommunicationDavid Baum