Sometimes, we forget the importance the word sorry can have when handling a social media based complaint or potential bad news press enquiry, and how sometimes saying it quickly (in the right way), before you even have the facts can have the biggest impact.
The problem is, many believe the word sorry is an admittance of guilt or an acceptance of fault, when in actual fact, it’s the acknowledgment that you are a person, that as a human you understand you’re responding to a real person with a complaint, issue or some sort of distress. It identifies you as having a level of emotional understanding beyond just following a process.
There is the battle between admitting culpability when it’s not due, and that is a fine balance, a balance often fought with comms one side and governance/legal on the other. There was a great story in the Corp Comms magazine on this jostle between professions for their stake in the public response.
And, when you are at fault (or maybe contractually responsible as my example shows), being so responsive that you say sorry before the complaint arrives, can not only keep your customer happy but also potentially transform them into an advocate for your business, meaning they remain a repeat customer.
Because ultimately, when a big crisis hits the fan, sorry at the start can help you manage things a whole lot easier, as another tragic example from package holiday provider Thomas Cook demonstrates.
I have pants
My wife and I recently decided to get away from it all and grab some winter sun, a pre-Christmas getaway to Gran Canaria. It will be most likely our last as a couple before our bump becomes a baby later this year, so two weeks chillaxing by the pool was the order of the day. We booked with then Thomson, now TUI, to fly from Birmingham Airport to the Canarian Island.
So the holiday arrived; my wife bundled me into our taxi (‘It’s still dark, I can see the moon, don’t make me move’) and we headed to Birmingham International Airport, checked-in with TUI’s fancy new self-check-in desk, and too cut a blow by blow account short, arrived without hitch at the baggage carousel in Las Palmas Airport.
It was here that it sadly all went wrong. My bag was one of the first few to begin the ballet of luggage off the conveyor belt. But as time went on, and as more and more of our fellow passengers disappeared with their suitcases, it became apparent my wife’s suitcase was not to make an appearance. As the carousel stopped, I felt my wife’s deathly glare on the back of my head as I prepared my script to keep her calm. At this point, a TUI rep appeared.
Without asking any questions, without trying to understand where blame might lie, the TUI rep said ‘Sorry’. She whisked us over to the baggage handlers desk (the business responsible for taking my bag from aircraft to baggage reclaim in Las Palmas). She started searching other carousels for us, having a search in the special item collection area, and speaking to the handlers in case it was just waylaid. She spoke to us calmly (pregnant wife in stressful situation needed handling carefully) and remained sympathetic despite not having the facts herself. The fact she had opened with an apology and instantly acknowledged the duress my wife (and ultimately I) was under, pacified us. We didn’t instantly start blaming TUI, I didn’t really feel the need to jump on social media to rant, but instantly her attitude made us want to work with her rather than against.
Fast forward to our holiday welcome meeting (those 15 minutes of excursion selling you get when you book a package holiday) the day after our arrival in the resort. By this point, the bag was a no-show and it was clear it was still in Birmingham. We had our lost baggage report and so we let Kyle, our TUI rep, know what was going on. He instantly apologised for the inconvenience caused and went one step further. He gave us 25€.
Without us asking for it or making a fuss, Kyle gave us 25€ on behalf of TUI, opened a complaint for us (we never once used the word complaint) and made it his mission to get our bag back to us. He also told us where we could get some essentials like toiletries and clothes.
The Henley Centre for Customer Management has explored the impact of opening or resolving a complaint before it is even raised by the customer. While at Henley at one of their events, we discussed how Virgin Atlantic have reported to do this when a flight is delayed, emailing the customer while they’re in the air, apologising, providing a money off voucher, and providing the link to begin the (regulatory required) compensation process.
Unfortunately, in our case, the bag took more than 72 hours to find its way from Birmingham to our hands, but each day, Kyle handed over 25€ euros to us as compensation.
At every stage, before we could open our mouths, TUI apologised, empathised and compensated. They resolved the problem with emotional intelligence before it became a problem.
I have pants? Those were the first words my wife cried when the bags arrived in our room after her three days of sharing my attire (difficult when you have a bump to accommodate).
As a further twist, the bag arrived damaged and what did Kyle do, not only said sorry but then offered to go out and buy us a replacement. We politely declined as the bag could get us home, and are instead arranging compensation via TUI customer service.
But its not our fault
Ultimately, I do appreciate that contractually, my airline is responsible for my baggage as although they contract handling to a third party and rent the facilities at the airport, my relationship is with them.
However, the episode also gave me a counterexample of how not saying sorry can make you feel.
The bag was further delayed and rather than wait a few hours to put the bag on a direct flight, a Birmingham Airport representative (as they described themselves) placed it on a connecting flight that meant another day of waiting. I may at this pointed ranted at Birmingham Airport via Twitter. My obviously frustrated message asked why they thought sending the bag on a connecting flight was a clever idea…
Here’s their reply.
Your airline contracts the baggage handler so pls contact them. A list of contacts can be found here https://t.co/zKT8962VS3
— Birmingham Airport (@bhx_official) December 9, 2017
A bit blunt, and immediately passed the blame. I know it isn’t necessarily their responsibility, but this tweet lacks awareness of my feeling. I replied suggesting that saying sorry for the inconvenience would’ve been a better start to their tweet. To which they said…
we were trying to give you the information you need to help retrieve it. Of course we’re sorry and hope you get it back soon
— Birmingham Airport (@bhx_official) December 9, 2017
Time wasn’t pressing (their reply wasn’t instantaneous after my tweet) and with 280 characters they had plenty of time and space to open with the sorry. Their second message was too late for it to have an impact on my attitude. I felt I’d had to ask for some understanding rather than it be given freely.
Getting it wrong on a bigger scale
This is a small example of when not saying sorry can have an impact. A much more serious example comes from fellow holiday provider, Thomas Cook.
You may be aware of the tragic loss of life of two young children while on a package holiday with Thomas Cook. Christi (aged 7) and Bobby (aged 8) dies from carbon monoxide poisoning while on holiday in Corfu in 2006.
Criticism of Thomas Cooks handling of this incident is rife (here are the thoughts of a PR Week panel at the time). The business was embroiled in a crisis that needed empathy, it needed handling sensitively, it needed human understanding, and ultimately wherever faulty may lie, it needed a sorry.
In fact, according to the Independent, it took 3,129 days for an apology to reach the family.
The way you communicate in those initial few moments will set the narrative for the rest of your crisis management.
While a criminal trial may have cleared the holiday operator, something they frequently referred to, an inquest eventually found them culpable. Thomas Cook had breached their duty of care. Whether or not the hotel was to blame, they had promised to provide the family a relaxing getaway, and instead left the family with loss on the most horrific of scales.
There is much more to the Thomas Cook story, such as the comments they made in court, and what they did with an insurance payout from the hotel, both initially, and when they were held liable.
At every point, Thomas Cook was out of step in judging the mood of the millions watching the situation, but most importantly, they were closed to the feelings of the Shepard family.
Reputation can be lost in an instant and considering how you would respond as a human and not as a corporation is key in that. This should have been a people-focused response and it wasn’t.
I’ll be honest, the fallout is one of the reasons I haven’t booked with Thomas Cook since.
So what do we do?
• As communicators (or as customer service leaders) always stop and consider the emotions at play for the other party before you consider yours as a business. Be human. Use your feelings to decide how to respond and pen this first, then go back a balance that with your corporate head
• On bigger issues and potential crisis work with your legal teams, make sure you stand your ground and ensure your public responses take into account empathy for the situation and acknowledgment of distress. Don’t let law overall emotion
• Ensure you have a plan. I’m not just talking about a crisis plan for those huge situations, consider the scripts your customer service team use and as a comms person offer to take a look. What’s their plan? This all forms part of brand and the image you as a business portray, which in my opinion is a comms area of expertise. Here’s a great but simple example from Hel Reynolds.
• Think about your tone of voice as a business. As above, how do your teams talk on social media? Are your responses to customers formulaic and robotic, can you tell your customer team a real people? I’ve written about the importance of social media tone of voice previously.
• Look at instances where you can go a step further before your customer expects it. TUI compensated me before I asked. Yes, they may have some form of legal obligation to, but the fact they were eager to do it straight away, and in the resort when the money is needed rather than a long process afterwards, means I have more trust and faith in them and will return as customer despite the ‘service failure’. Virgin Atlantic apologise and point a customer to a compensation form without the customer having to contact them.
• Act quickly. Don’t spend ages considering responsibility, what’s going on, what needs to be done next, acknowledge your customers distress straight away and show them you’re ready to help
• Never forget the importance of the word sorry. When used genuinely, and in the right way, it can have a huge impact.