I am often asked, “If I, or my company, has made a mistake, how should we apologize?” I used to tell people that one apology at the start of the conversation, and one at the end, was sufficient; any more, and it seems like you are begging for forgiveness. However, new research conducted by Case Western Reserve University has discovered that apologies almost never have the desired effect we want. Surprisingly, angry customers report greater satisfaction when the employee skips the apology altogether; focusing instead on finding an immediate solution.
This advice might seem counterintuitive, until you examine the delicate psychology of familial vs. non-familial relationships. If we have a lunch date with a close friend, and she is twenty minutes late, we not only expect an apology, we will stew in our anger until we get a heartfelt atonement. That is because the basis of the relationship is emotional, not based on an outcome. However, if the scenario is you not having an item delivered to a client when promised, the client is not interested in a positive emotional experience, he just wants to know how the problem is going to be solved. In fact, the researchers at Case Western Reserve discovered that, in non-familial relationships, employees who tried to express empathy or contrition were viewed as even less trustworthy than those who focused solely on solving the problem.
Why the opposite reactions to an apology? Because the brain has a special place for people in our inner circle—familial relationships—and for people who aren’t—non-familial relationships. People in our inner circle rely on shared experiences to cement the relationship. If people outside the inner circle try the same approach, the brain deems it inauthentic. The outcome of an inauthentic approach is that even good solutions can be viewed with suspicion. Even professions that rely heavily on empathy must be careful not to tread too close to the familial relationship border. Take, for example, a visit to the emergency room. You would expect that nurses, being in an empathic profession, could utilize apologies to great effect. Not so. Let’s say you injured your leg and are waiting in an exam room at the ER. When a nurse pokes his head in to see how you are doing, you say, “My leg is really starting to hurt.” Which of the following responses would you want to hear from the nurse?
- “Oh, I’m so sorry. You sure did bang your leg up pretty bad, and it must feel awful. I’m so sorry about the wait. We’re going to get to you as soon as we possibly can. We have some other patients, but I’ll be back when it’s your turn. Again, thanks so much for your patience.”
- “Okay, then we need to get your pain under control as soon as possible. The doctor is with another patient, but I’m going to let her know about your situation and we’ll get you taken care of right away.”
In the two examples above, even if the length of time to solve the problem turns out to be the same, the second response is more effective because it displays a sense of urgency. In non-familial relationships, chit-chat is not only perceived as disingenuous, it wastes time. I experienced the wasting of time while trying to clear up an issue with a customer service rep on the phone. I was trying to gain access to an online account and my password wasn’t working. I was clearly dealing with a rep who was trained to follow a script (one of my biggest pet peeves in the customer service industry). Every time I stated a problem, she responded with, “We are very sorry you are experiencing this issue.” After at least a dozen, “We are very sorry” statements, I finally said, “At the risk of being rude, I need to ask you to stop apologizing. It is taking way too much time, and I need to resolve this quickly.” She paused and said, “I am very sorry for apologizing so much.”
There is an old saying, People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Demonstrating how you care is different, depending on whether the listener is in your inner circle. Skip the chit-chat, and solve the problem.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.