Sometimes the best way to make a point is by telling a story. This is one of those times. If you work in customer service or if you have ever been treated poorly as a customer, I hope this story conveys the value of an apology.
Not long ago I traveled to the east coast to attend a special event and visit some relatives. A few days before I left, I dropped off some clothes at the cleaners and picked them up the morning I flew out. Over the years I've learned to pack light, so I took just enough clothes for the trip.
The afternoon of the special event I took my dress shirt out of the suitcase - only to find the shirt had shrunk. A lot. "I didn't eat THAT much for breakfast," I thought.
Because the shirt was 100 percent silk and dry-clean-only, it was fairly obvious the shirt had been laundered by mistake. I called my relatives to say I'd be late and headed to the shopping mall where I bought another shirt.
Deny, Deny, Deny
After I was back home I went to the dry cleaners and asked to see the owner. As I explained what happened, she asked no clarifying questions and did nothing to investigate the problem. She offered no apology. But she did sound like a broken record: "Impossible - it could not have happened here."
I reiterated the facts and then asked how a shirt could fit fine before coming to the cleaners, but afterwards the sleeves are suddenly two inches shorter.
Amazingly, she continued to deny that her store was responsible, and there was nothing she could do.
Win the Battle, Lose the War
I was going to ask for minimal compensation, but what really bothered me most was she didn't even apologize. I spend probably between $700 - $900 a year at this particular dry cleaners. It would have been really nice to hear her say, "I'm so sorry this happened to you. How much was the shirt? How about if I give you some of that back in laundry credit?"
I would have been fine with that, but she did nothing of the sort. Like I said, she didn't even apologize. All she did was deny.
As she walked away I stood there thinking I would be taking my business elsewhere.
Winning Back the Customer
Just before I turned to leave, an employee who had been hovering nearby came over and said, "Why don't you come back in the morning and talk with the other owner - her husband." That was all she said, but her voice tone and facial expression told me I'd probably get a different result.
When I came back to talk with the other half of the ownership team, I explained the situation and showed him the shirt's tag (which his wife wouldn't even look at). He said out loud, "100% silk. That's dry clean only."
The man apologized, stating it was obvious from the shirt's appearance it had gone through the laundry. He had me fill out a damage form and then compensated me even more than I'd requested. We parted on good terms.
As a result, I actually intend to continue taking my clothes to this cleaners. For a couple of bucks and an apology, this business will continue to receive $700 – $900 of my hard-earned dollars each year.
The Power of a Sincere Apology
I share this story because it illustrates the power of a sincere apology. It also outlines two ways to approach a problem: One method is effective - the other isn't.
The ineffective method is easy: Be pigheaded and refuse to see anything from the other person's point of view.
As the story illustrates, customers treated this way prefer to leave and not come back. And their money goes with them.
The effective method is not so easy. It involves being objective and listening with an open mind before making a decision. It may even require apologizing about a mistake.
The main point is that apologies are powerful. In fact, one restaurant owner I know makes it a point to apologize and then compensate customers who have legitimate complaints. He says those actions actually bring in more business, because people tell others about how professionally their complaint was handled.
Obviously we don't want mistakes to happen. But when a customer brings a complaint to our attention we have a choice. We can be arrogant and pigheaded, or we can listen carefully. And, if needed, apologize and make it right.