When something goes wrong, what do you say?

When something goes wrong, what do you say?

Written By Jeffrey Gitomer

KING OF SALES, The author of seventeen best-selling books including The Sales Bible, The Little Red Book of Selling, and The Little Gold Book of Yes! Attitude. His live coaching program, Sales Mastery, is available at gitomer.me.

How do you apologize to a customer?

When your company makes an error, or a customer is in some way offended, and an apology is in order, all kinds of options are available. Most of which only make a bad situation worse.

How do you respond when something goes wrong? How does your customer service department respond when something goes wrong? I am amazed at the billions of dollars spent on customer service training, only to breed pathetic responses that further alienates, and deepens the wound that bleeds from the wallet of a customer.

When it’s your turn to apologize for your customer’s perceived error, company wrong doing, or misdeed, here are the options:

  1. Saying, “I’m sorry.” The most often used phrase. “I’m sorry” are two of the worst words you can use in the English language. They describe yourself and not your circumstance. If I had my way, I would abolish these two words from ever being used again. I’m sorry is a state of being. If you say it enough, eventually you’ll become it. A more appropriate response is…
  2. Saying, “I apologize.” This is a better choice of words. It tells how you feel about the circumstance. You apologize for the occurrence. Caution: Many people say, “On behalf of… let me apologize.” This is insincere and wrong. If you’re going to apologize to someone, apologize on behalf of the most important person in the world…you. BUT I apologize by itself is weak unless accompanied by a solution (never an excuse).
  3. Giving some lame excuse. No one cares about your problems or your excuses. Customers only want to know what you’re going to do about it. Making lame excuses is self-serving. Giving an action plan is customer-serving.
  4. Blaming someone else. This is a lower form of excuse-making. Telling a customer it was someone else’s fault in no way excuses the error that has been made. Customers don’t care whose fault it is, they only care how the issue is going to be resolved. No matter whose fault it is, if you continue to use this method of apology, customers will find your competition.
  5. Citing company policy. Company policy is made for companies, not customers. The word policy may be the single most alienating word to say to a customer. Even if you must enforce it, don’t say the word.
  6. Saying, “Sorry about that.” This phrase also means “up yours.” It is spoken without a grain of sincerity. It is always said without looking the other person in the eye, and roughly translated means oops, too bad, I don’t care. Sorry about that should be on the same list of banned words as I’m sorry and policy.
  7. (Thinking, “Who cares?”) This philosophy will put you in triple failure mode you will fail your customer, your company, and yourself. If this is you, change jobs soon before you get fired.
  8. Saying, “Oh, that’s horrible!” This is the most desired response because customers only want to know two things:
  • That you care about them personally.
  • What are you going to do about their situation now.

Oh that’s horrible must be said with feeling and sincerity. Almost as if you were singing it and should be followed by, “That makes me mad too.” and “I’m going to personally see that your situation is resolved as follows (give solution).”

  1. Saying, “Thank you.” This is a great way to begin a positive recovery. Thank you for telling me; thank you for having the courage to come forward with this, thank you for bringing this to my attention, are words that will surprise the customer, if followed by the appropriate apology and action plan.
  2. (9.5) Taking personal responsibility for following up. Getting back to the wronged customer either by phone, email, or with a hand written note will begin to rebuild lost goodwill. To be memorable you may want to send a small gift.

Well, which one of these are you? The best response is a combination of #8, 2, 9, and 9.5. You state how bad you feel, apologize for the occurrence, thank the customer for their bringing it to your attention, take personal responsibility for it, get a plan for action, then follow up memorably. The interesting thing is that only about 5% of Corporate America even comes close to this combination. So, by responding this way, you have a 95% opportunity to gain a competitive advantage. Try it.

Reality Check: Business studies show it takes twelve positive occurrences to overcome one negative experience men know this it’s why roses come in dozens.

Success Strategy: Even if you must say no, start with yes or transfer the customer to a manager when you are unable to say yes and try to partner a solution, rather than tell an angry customer no. Preface it by saying “The best way for me to help you right now is to…” Never say, “There’s nothing I can do about that…” Let the customer feel a sense of help and support.

Big Secret to Success: If done right, positive recovery is the most powerful weapon in your customer service toolbox. State your apology and action plan in terms of the customer not in terms of you. They want to know about their money, their productivity, their lost opportunity, their aggravation, their loss not your situation, your excuse, or what you felt happened.

Apologies are worthless unless followed by an action plan, action taken, resolved situation, and the customer is recontacted. Your first words, and the type of apology you first offer, sets the tone for how the customer will receive the solution. Recontacting the customer is the final (and most overlooked) step in a successful apology. The note you end on is the note your customer will begin to sing when he or she hangs up the phone or leaves your place of business.

What tune are you sending (singing) to your customers?