The Institutional Apology

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.

5 thoughts on “The Institutional Apology”

  1. Southwest won my respect years ago when they made a mistake: my family was traveling on vacation (back in the day of multipart paper tickets) and as we checked in for the first leg of the return trip three of us had no problem, but the fourth did not have a coupon for that flight. The clerk paged through the booklet, realized there was an unused coupon for a previous leg, asked if we were all traveling together, then made some cryptic magic marker notations on the ‘wrong’ coupon, and handed #4 her boarding pass, with an apology, that on the earlier leg the clerk must have pulled the wrong coupon. No forms to fill out, no supervisors to call, nothing. Just a company that trusted its employees on the front lines to use their judgement and do their job.
    Think what that says – if the employees are not trusted, one must assume they should not be trusted, that they are not fully competent and need oversight. We all know constant supervision isn’t possible, so it makes me nervous to deal with outfits who think it’s necessary.

  2. In the course of an almost 10 year career working customer escalations for a multi state competative local exchange carrier (one of Qwests competators) I too became the official apologizer for our local branch. It does wear on you, but I also think that it helped me develop a style of written communication that eventually led me to blogging.
    Mistakes happen, sometimes it is the companys fault, sometimes not. However, I learned that if I took “responsibility” (as the face and voice of the company) for the mistake (and it’s subsequent repair) it built customer loyalty in the long run .

  3. I had to do extensive, proactive apologizing in 1989. As part of a big field exercise, some computer somewhere was generating simulated, by-name casualties for our battalion. I was the personnel officer, so to train and stress the personnel section, we generated condolence letters, and used primitive merge-mailing to address envelopes. One afternoon, I noticed that the stack of letters and envelopes had disappeared. Asking where they went, I found that an energetic, but not very bright, clerk had mailed them. We tried to catch the mail bag, but it got too far to retrieve any mail pieces. I spent many, many hours on the phone with wives and parents from Germany, explaining the collector’s item that they were about to receive in the mail. No one was angry, some people howled with laughter, and every one of them was grateful that I took the time to call ahead of the mail man. It took a lot of time, but can you imagine how much time and energy would have been expended, responding to dozens of congressional investigations? Even worse, had I just said “Oh, well, stuff happens…”, it would have meant horrible anguish for all the recipients.
    Apologies are critical, and they are most effective before they’re expected. Southwest has always had a good handle on customer service, and this just shows one more way that they are ahead of the curve.

  4. My wife was on the flight from Phx to Albuquerque. She received the letter this week and a $150 travel voucher. Nice touch, especially since it wasn’t expected.

  5. I think the best part is explaining what had happened… when you don’t understand what went wrong, you cannot decide if it was handled correctly, and you then cannot decide if the airline is worth your continued patronage.
    However, if you find out what happened you can understand why the situation went the way it did, maybe even agree with the decision. An explanation by itself is an excuse, but adding in a voucher makes it an apology. Nice to see that recognized. In any case, the great unknown is removed, and replaced with a positive. THAT is what will reassure airline passengers.
    I understand the problem with immediate information not being available or not trustable… but the airline that makes a corporate decision to be upfront and truthful to their passengers will be able to charge a 50% premium over the competition.

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