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The Lost Art of Saying I’m Sorry 

The Lost Art of Saying I’m Sorry

The Lost Art of Saying I’m Sorry

Human skills – and basic courtesy – can sometimes compensate for boneheaded corporate policies the call center is forced to implement.

11/1/2004
By Donna Fluss
CallCenter Magazine

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Contact centers and service organizations get more than their share of irate complaints. In the course of a day, representatives speak with the best and worst of society. Good service representatives are able to rapidly de-escalate angry diatribes by placating customers and addressing their issues. This is an art that requires great talent, innate sensitivity and communications training. No amount of sophisticated technology can replace the human touch.

The life of a service agent is very stressful. Agents cannot predict the topic or mood of each customer. It’s a bit like playing Russian roulette where the verbal barbs are the bullets. Agents are expected to present a consistently positive persona to the public. This is a difficult goal to achieve, considering the amount of abuse they receive.

At the same time, too many sales and service representatives are either not suited for the job, not properly trained and/or not sufficiently empowered. When poorly trained, unskilled and helpless agents speak with grumpy customers, spontaneous combustion results. When language or cultural differences are added into the mix, the confrontation can reach nuclear proportions. Often the conflict is not the fault of the agent, but rather the company that has failed its representatives by tying their hands with bad policies and lack of information and training.

Conflict happens. The issue is what representatives do when confronted with difficult customer situations. Great agents with outstanding communications skills have a natural talent for empathizing with customers and keeping conversations on track. These gifted individuals are rare. Sales and service organizations should hire people with the right competencies, which include a fair degree of interpersonal skills, and then train them before putting them before the public. Part of the training should include the willingness to say, “I’m sorry” when a situation calls for it.

Today, the words “I’m sorry” have mysteriously taken on many negative connotations. “I’m sorry” implies everything from wrongdoing to guilt to vulnerability or weakness to indebtedness. Why can’t it just be used in its plainest sense, as an expression of empathy – as the words were intended? When used properly and sincerely, these two simple words take the fight out of many confrontations or disagreements. Agents who use these words effectively and quickly restore equilibrium to a conversation; agents who don’t will exacerbate an already negative situation. It’s up to contact center management and trainers to make sure agents are willing to say “I’m sorry” sincerely and follow up with appropriate actions.

We’ve all been there. When arriving at a hotel and finding it overbooked, despite having a confirmed reservation, wouldn’t it be nice for someone to greet you with a smile and a sincere apology? It’s challenging for agents to tell tired travelers that they have to go elsewhere to find lodgings, but an “I’m sorry” diffuses the tension in a situation while a “this just happens,” or “it’s the hotel, not me” generally makes the traveler angrier. It’s expensive to train desk clerks, but more expensive to lose customers.

Or, how about when a payment is not properly applied to a credit card account – have you noticed that even if the payment was made weeks in advance and the credit card company debited the funds from your checking account, they still blame you and hit your account with a late fee. Worse yet, their agents appear scripted not to apologize for their company’s processing error, as this would imply that they were responsible for the mistake. Even if an agent says, “I’m sorry,” it’s generally followed by some caveat that reflects the lack of sincerity, as does their demand that the customer send in proof of payment.

This problem is compounded as the cost of handling multiple calls from customers seeking a “fair” agent or supervisor, plus the time spent by back office staff to process the paperwork sent by the customer, often greatly exceeds the revenue earned from the late fee. Agents often won’t say, “I’m sorry,” which would make a customer more accepting of having to chase down the paperwork, because they know their organization isn’t sorry and have decided that they don’t want to take the blame. This is a case of shortsighted corporate policies with long-term revenue implications. How many of us have changed credit card companies because of poor interactions with unpleasant agents?

Alternatively, how many of us are calmer when confronted by a ridiculous corporate policy when someone pleasant, nice and caring makes the case?

Another favorite is the cancelled or late airline flight. We all know that reservation agents take a lot of abuse, but much of it is inflicted by their own company’s policies. How many times have airlines cancelled under-booked flights and then sent their hapless agents out to take responsibility for the company’s action, without training them to handle the inevitable backlash from customers. Even if a token “I’m sorry”is uttered, its lack of sincerity makes a lasting impression and causes customer attrition.

Agents represent the brand and company to customers. They are the “voice” of the company to the public and of customers to the enterprise (if it’s listening). A bad interaction with just one agent can and will be held against an entire company – even worse, the unhappy anecdote will make the rounds and poison other current and potential customers.

It’s amazing how many problems can be avoided or resolved with common courtesies. “I’m sorry”are two of the most important words in the lexicon of service and sales personnel. It’s a pity that too many enterprises seem to have forgotten to teach it to their staff.

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