Future of Work

When should companies say sorry?

Belinda Parmar
Chief Executive Officer, The Empathy Business
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We Brits are one “sorry” nation. We are “sorry” when we meet head-on and don’t know whether to go left or right. We are sorry when we both start talking at the same time. And we are even “sorry” when somebody else treads on our foot. But our banks are the sorriest Brits of the lot.

Sorry, sorry, sorry, the word just trips off their tongues, peppering their tweets and press-releases. Our research found that the top UK banks tweeted the word “sorry” 76 times in a single day. It also found that while Royal Bank of Scotland had the highest proportion of tweets containing the word “sorry”, it ranked towards the lower reaches of the Lady Geek Empathy Index which measures empathy levels in companies.

Perhaps banks have a lot to be regretful for, and their apologies may be long overdue. The law of diminishing returns applies here: if you say “sorry” too much the word loses its ability to convince. It becomes stripped of any sense of actual remorse. It is reduced, in the words of The Shrink and the Sage authors Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini, to “an unchecked verbal tic,” lacking in any authenticity.

And yet the corporate world still thinks “sorry” cuts the apologetic mustard. Customer support managers still trade in worthless “sorry” credits imagining they are showing empathy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sorry, when used carelessly, is a word we use to avoid taking responsibility or specifically addressing a problem.

In the words of Macaro and Baggini, “the bottom line is about recognising that what we did was hurtful,” and that calls for you to engage with the complaint laid at your door. That is precisely what “sorry” fails to do.

But what if the injured party isn’t ready to be fobbed off with a half-hearted “sorry”? Looking at the interactions between bank and their users we found that quickly saying sorry often had the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of diffusing the situation, the evident insincerity of the apology actually fuelled the empathy deficit.

Customers deserve more. Customers are demanding more. “Better human service” was the number one most requested service improvement by customers according to the Genesys Global Survey, and what better human service means is empathy. Empathic problem-handling requires companies to admit they are at fault without resorting to knee-jerk reactive platitudes. Companies can demonstrate empathy by showing that they understand the customer’s issue and by committing to a realistic solution.

That’s a hard thing to do; it requires that companies empower their contact teams. It means a change in priorities – contact centre staff are no longer in the business of “handling” customers. Companies need to engage with customers’ problems and open up their eyes to their own empathy deficits. They need to exchange their worthless throwaway “sorries” for genuine responses born of empathy.

There is no magic solution, but the impact of marginal “empathy nudges” can be seen quickly. The first step is for companies to take a critical look at the way they engage with their customers, their employees and the world at large, and weigh up just how empathic they are, because the first and most fundamental realisation is that empathy is a quantifiable strategic skill that can be measured and improved. The second step is for companies to redefine their definition of empathy and wake up to the fact that it does not mean saying sorry in an automated attempt to please people. And thirdly, introduce authenticity as a core corporate value, in the way companies engage with clients, with their own employees and with society.

Three steps to pulling the banks out of their empathy deficit. But first they need to stop apologising, otherwise they really will be sorry…

Belinda Parmar OBE is a YGL and the CEO of Lady Geek, the company who run the Global Empathy Index. 

Image: Flickr user p-a-t-r-i-c-k

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