The Power of an Apology

Customer-service contrition is negatively correlated to the strength of the economy.

When the economy goes down, apologies to clients seem to go up. In economic bubbles, however, they plummet — and fast.

During the recession, a security company was supposed to do an installation for Syntaxis. Their technician didn’t show up, and when I called to check about the appointment, the person I spoke to admitted he had forgotten to pass along the job information.

“I’m sorry,” he said, before promising that the technician would arrive shortly (which he did).

The very same week, I got a second apology, this time from a shipping company that had made a mistake with the mailing address on a package.

Although these two experiences do not constitute a statistically significant sample, an increase in apologies may well be part of a larger trend towards courtesy and accountability in a challenging work environment. Even extremely conscientious people make mistakes from time to time, so perfection is not a reasonable expectation — but a courteous I’m sorry is. Unfortunately, pre-recession customer-service apologies were often hard to come by.

A number of years ago, for example, upon discovering a significant technical glitch, I sent an e-mail to the vendor responsible for that system. Our contact there never apologized, instead writing back simply, “This has been fixed.”

The unwillingness to say the words I’m sorry is a major customer-service failing, yet many people seem to believe they should never apologize to customers, because that would mean admitting a mistake. If a customer knows a mistake has been made, it is unproductive to pretend it hasn’t. In fact, pretending it hasn’t is an excellent way to infuriate customers, even drive them away altogether. (This technique has a similarly dismal record in people’s personal lives; if you are skeptical, try it out with a loved one and see how that goes for you.)

In a recession, when firms in many industries are competing for scarce business, it is natural that the quality of customer service would receive more attention. As the economy shrinks, you see growth in the apology sector.

Now that the economy is stronger again, perhaps the apology sector will once again show signs of decline — although I will hope for a hangover effect from harder times.

Good business etiquette, after all, is always good business!