All customer-service professionals share at least one common experience: the apology. The ability to execute an apology makes or breaks careers. If it comes out too rote and lacking empathy, it will serve to enrage the customer. If a representative makes too many of them or gives away too much as penance, their employer will not trust them to look after the company’s interests. As someone who has spent almost two decades in customer service management, I can tell you from long experience that this one aspect of customer service may be the most critical piece of customer retention. Mistakes will be made — how companies react to them is what customers value most.
With that in mind, it makes sense that apologies would become their own industry. Not surprisingly, it has started with the industry that probably has the greatest need for professional apologizers:
Airlines are getting serious about saying they’re sorry.
After a spate of nightmarish service disruptions, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways and others are sending out more apologies, hoping to head off customer complaints and quell talk of new consumer-protection regulations from Congress.
But no airline accepts blame quite like Southwest Airlines, which employs Fred Taylor Jr. in a job that could be called chief apology officer.
His formal title is senior manager of proactive customer communications. But Mr. Taylor — 37, rail thin and mildly compulsive, by his own admission — spends his 12-hour work days finding out how Southwest disappointed its customers and then firing off homespun letters of apology.
“Erring on the side of caution, our captain decided to return to Phoenix rather than second-guess the smell that was in the cabin,” Mr. Taylor wrote to passengers who were on a March 7 flight to Albuquerque. A faulty valve was to blame. “Not toxic, it was obviously annoying,” he assured them, throwing in a free voucher for future travel to clear the air.
He composes about 180 letters a year explaining what went wrong on particular flights and, with about 110 passengers per flight, he mails off roughly 20,000 mea culpas. Each one bears his direct phone line.
I used to tell my staff that all they had to do was follow the procedures and the policies correctly, and that if that still created mistakes, I would take the responsibility for them. I referred to myself — jokingly — as a professional apologizer. I had no idea the position would ever exist.
It’s easy to criticize this, but I think it’s a smart move. A good and sincere apology, with some measure of remuneration to the inconvenienced, will defuse many dissatisfied customers and turn them into enthusiastic patrons. If a company wants to really focus on these opportunities, it makes sense to employ a professional apologizer to do it. With the right man on the job, it can cost a company thousands of dollars in freebies, but gain them millions of dollars in revenue in the long run.
I do pity Fred Taylor, however. No matter how good someone is at handling these complaints, they have a negative impact on the spirit after a while. Hopefully, Southwest will ensure that Taylor has his “freedom to move about the country” on a regular basis to recharge the batteries.