The Organizational Apology

This is the title of an article in the September 2015 issue of The Harvard Business Review, which focuses on entire organizations apologizing for serious issues such as manipulating user feeds (Facebook), failing to recall dangerous cars (GM), or oil rig explosions (BP). And we can now add Volkswagen to the list. May our organizations never be involved in such serious issues — but support executives routinely take on the mantle of organizational apologizers for product defects. Here are some ideas from the article:

  • Apologize for big problems, and perhaps small ones too. The article calls them core issues (for us: delivering a usable product) and non-core issues (for us: internal practices such as hiring).
  • Apologize for one-offs. Social media can generate lots of visibility to what seems an isolated incident so get in front of the problem. The example in the article is of the United passenger whose guitar was mangled in transit. You probably remember the incident, even if you do not fly United, or play the guitar.
  • Choose the individual at the right level to deliver the apology. We seem to know instinctively in support circles that big-time apologies need to be delivered by an executive. For smaller matters, encourage managers to participate in customer calls with support engineers when apologies are due: the same message delivered by someone in charge will be much better accepted by the recipient.
  • Be candid. Beating around the bush makes the recipient wonder if you really mean to apologize.
  • Convey remorse. We are often worried about legal repercussions, but customers who receive apologies are actually less likely to sue. (This has been proven in a health care context.)
  • Focus on the customer, not yourself. The mishap may be a terrible inconvenience to the internal organization, but first and foremost it is a (major) inconvenience for the customers.
  • Focus on change. This may be the toughest point for us in support, since we are often the deliverers of apologies, but rarely the cause of the problem, or the ones responsible for fixing it. We need to advocate for customers with other organizations such as Engineering and Operations to improve the situation in the future.

Do you have an interesting apology technique you’d like to share? Please do!

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