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When is it wise to apologise?

Last week David Hartnett, the UK’s top tax official, refused to apologise after his service took the wrong amount of tax from six million people. Asked if he would say sorry to those facing unexpected bills, Mr Hartnett told BBC Radio 4’s Money Box programme: “I’m not sure I see a need to apologise”.

He has now locked himself into a battle with the nation, led by the press, demanding an apology. He may hold out in the face of anger from his customers but he may have to endure a great deal of stress before the situation calms down. The same holds true for any situation where a customer believes they are owed an apology. If they don’t get one they will persist and in certain cases escalate the conflict and vent their anger on the staff member.

Having recently been on holiday to the USA, I was surprised to learn that Denny’s, one of the largest restaurant chains in the country, encourage their staff to apologise when dealing with unhappy customers. Denny’s is a breakfast orientated restaurant chain similar to Little Chef, except they have customers! A regular sentiment we hear on our conflict management courses is that staff are very reluctant to apologise. When I mentioned this to the Denny’s store manager, he commented that most of the time this is all the customer wants and if they don’t get it THEN all hell could break loose – my thoughts exactly!

There are a number of reasons put forward by our delegates for keeping an apology under wraps. It might be cultural in that we do not like losing face (we are not exactly good complainers, are we?). If we apologise we may be admitting guilt or the customer may ‘twist our words’ and make even more outrageous demands. Worse still, we or our organisation might face litigation.

Let’s look at some of these reasons for not giving an apology. First, if we actually did provide bad service, we might get sued. However, a customer would need more substance than a simple apology saying for example; ‘I am sorry we have let you down’. Even if we admitted total liability during a conversation it is unlikely that that would stand up in court on its own. Your legal representative might argue you spoke in the heat of the moment or you didn’t actually have the authority to admit liability. How many people do you know who have been successfully prosecuted by an angry customer?

Secondly, customers may ‘twist our words’ and demand more from us. Yes, anything is possible where angry customers are concerned. This must be weighed up against the angry outbursts that can erupt when customers do not get an apology they feel they deserve.

The manager at Denny’s was of the view that it did not matter who was right or wrong. If the customer thinks we are in the wrong, we are in the wrong. Arguing or justifying our position with the customer just makes the customer angrier. An apology is an acknowledgement that something has gone wrong and we can now move on to fixing it and concluding the conversation. If we don’t acknowledge something is wrong the customer can spend a long time trying to ‘tell us’ we are wrong.

Of course, we do need to take some care about what we are apologising for. Apologising for ‘not meeting your expectations’ is different from saying ‘sorry, we have been grossly negligent’. Some useful phrases to consider in different contexts are:

‘Sorry, we have not met your expectations’

‘Sorry, we have made you feel that about…’

‘Sorry, we let you down, I will take responsibility, this is what I will do about it’

In most cases, if your organisation has messed up, why not say so? Acknowledging our part or that of our organisation in causing the distress to the customer can go a long way towards lowering the emotion in the situation.

Since starting this article, George Osborne, the Chancellor for the Exchequer, was said to be ‘incandescent with rage’, Mr Hartnett has made a ‘grovelling apology’, and according to the Daily Mail his job ‘hangs by a thread’. Withhold an apology at your peril!



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