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SORRIES. APOLOGIES. INCONVENIENCES: BRIEF GUIEDE TO COMPLEX CASES

Alexandra Shiryaeva
Chief Customer Officer at UseDesk
The modern customer support services in Russia have two persistent problems: a lack of empathy and the tendency to apologize and express regrets. It is an unpleasant fact but it would not be an overstatement to say that every second customer service operator considers it is his duty to apologize to the customer, and express regret, then, apologize again, and then, end the conversation with a final "we are really very sorry."

Well, this does not work the way the customer support operators intend it to work. They use it every single time they believe the customer suffers any difficulties. More than that, it causes harm because instead of a patience and loyalty from your customer, you see customer's irritation in response.

The roots of these troubles are in a very good intention: the operators and their managers truly believe that "I'm sorry" and "I apologize" are the magic words that make the customer feel like the world's customer service focus is on him now. That is not true. It is a cliché.

Apologies

After reading the above, some of you are worried - how to act then? Stop apologizing at all?

*scary-sounding music plays*

Right! Do not apologize, when it is inappropriate or you do not know how to do it.
Stop using these phrases

We apologize
Please accept our sincere apologies
We apologize for this inconvenience
We apologize on behalf of the company
I'm sorry, but ...
Say instead

Anything fresh, sincere and personal (!)

I apologize for the glitch, we fixed it ...
That is an error on our end, sorry for this. We've already....
Pardon! That is our fault! We will fix it now.
Good afternoon, Ivan! The courier was late due to the terrible traffic. I understand, this is not an excuse for us and we are actively looking for a way to change it. Sorry for this. We sent you ...
Typical phrases, clichés and everything that a customer hears a hundred times a day, even not from you, do not work. They are pointless not because they sound ugly but because the customer knows that there is nothing behind them, they are fake. There is no honesty and no real apologies behind these phrases, and as you know, hypocrisy does not evoke any warm feelings. As soon as you move away from the clichés and add personal details (inside information on what has happened, the details that are specific for this customer, etc.), everything changes.

The purpose of apology is to show that there are humans on the other side. If the company made a mistake or did not foresee something, by saying sorry, you demonstrate that you admit there was a mistake in the past, and your understanding and recognition of the mistake is half way to rectification. By saying sorry, you show the customer that you are on his side, and you are involved in the looking a way to solve the problem, demonstrate empathy. The official language and standard phrases are not suitable here. Every apology is a unique message addressed to a particular customer (still it can be based on a template if you have a good one, but always amend it by adding the details for a specific customer).

To learn how to do this in a quick and effective way, you may need to spend some time and get more practice, and be ready to try the new approach on the customers.
PRACTICE
Remove standard apologies phrases from all the templates, and ask each operator to come up with their own list of apologies phrases — 10 phrases will be enough for daily use. Apologies should be divided into categories according to the most common use cases.

Pay close attention to the customers' reactions to the apologies phrases you use, change the wording, try new ones. Never send the same phrase twice to the customer. They may notice you use the same templates for every customer and the impression will not be very good.

Regrets

Apologies are meant to show empathy and recognition of the mistake, while regret is the merest rudiment of shame. You try to incorporate them into the slogan of your customer focus but instead you have a terrible result. Ineffective regrets make you weak and precludes your ability to hear the customer, who does not need your regrets and standard excuses but a solution and understanding.мание.

The problem with showing the sincere regrets is that it is very hard to express them; quite often, it is only the manager of customer support team who can do this. The agents' attempts to express regrets are so clumsy that the customer sooner loses patience than he realizes that there are sincere regrets from your side.

Simple advice: do not write, do not regret.

*scary-sounding music plays, cliché cracks on the background*
Stop using these phrases

Unfortunately, …
I'm sorry
We are very sorry
We are really sorry
Sorry but ...
Say instead

If you are not brilliant in writing, don't try to replace these phrases but just omit them. Just skip this part and move to practical part (below).).

If you don't hear alarm in your head, then play with the excuses:

Oh, we are powerless here! Moscow traffic do not make exceptions even for us, while we are trying our best to manage it, I cannot promise anything concrete in order not to lie to you and not give false expectations ...

Ivan, to be honest, I feel quite useless. I really would be happy to help but in reality, I just cannot. Everything that relates to ..., is beyond our control. However, if I can facilitate your communication with them, please, do let me know, and I will do everything I can.

PRACTICE
First, revise your templates again; cut out the regrets without regrets. Second, talk to the operators and explain why you are asking them to stop expressing the regrets.

"That's over, guys, we do not regret anymore!" – such explanation would not work. The agents should understand why you do not regret anymore. Make it clear for them that the regrets worsen the situation, and they make the customer feel bad, then, the agents are likely to realize your point, and agree with it.

If regrets do not stop or you cannot skip them, try to figure out the type of the tickets where you use them, then, identify the common features of these tickets and help the agents to come up with a list of alternative phrases they can use when they feel absolutely necessarily, but remember: regrets do not solve the customer's issue.
Important note: use apologies and regrets very moderately and deliberately, give them some weight. Do not apologize for the things that are out of your control rather try to solve the problem; do not put yourself in a deliberately guilty position as it is very difficult to get out of it. Do not start your message with regret or apology. Start with something informative, discuss possible solutions and investigations, and only at the end of the conversation, you may allow yourself to say sorry as it is the time when the customer is ready to accept your apologies. By that time, he knows what has happened, what you did to fix it, and what the further steps to solve the issue are, and as the result, the customer is more loyal and tolerant.

Problems and Inconveniences

There are certain trigger words that ruin the most effective conversation. The most common and the most painful ones are "problem" and "inconvenience".
Stop using these phrases

In order to solve the problem, …
Your problem is caused ...
We understand your problem ...
Your problem will be ...
We will investigate the problem ...
Inconvenience caused
Inconvenience experienced
Your inconvenience
Say instead

The issues with these words are their implied meaning and wide use. The first one can be solved by using the synonyms that fit the context, and the second one - by a complete substitution.

Problem = overlay, glitch, error, defect (the last one is a risky one because what is a mere defect in your opinion, can be the end of the world for the customer), omission, difficulty, complexity

Inconvenience = certain difficulties that the customer has experienced (for example, sorry to keep you waiting, apologize for the delivery delay, etc.)
I would like to mention that the inconveniences are undoubtedly acceptable to be discussed with the customer. However, you should use word "inconvenience" only when the situation is really uncomfortable. I mean, physically.

A situation, where the customer had to arrive to the store urgently is an inconvenience for sure (that was uncomfortable)

A situation, where the customer has to use the full version of the website instead of a mobile app is an inconvenience (it is inconvenient but moderate)

A situation, where the customer was delivered an order that was expired is NOT an inconvenience; it is a delivery of expired product

A situation, where your website was not loading for a week is NOT an inconvenience; it is a non-working website, your mistakes and failures

A situation, where a courier was late is not an inconvenience; it is a delivery delay
PRACTICE
As mentioned above, revise the templates and draft the new ones. For every standard case, where you say about the inconvenience, explain in writing the specific reasons behind each apology.

Alternatives and Promises

Apology, regrets, empathy, customer focus are just the pretty add-ons, in reality, the customer needs only the solution for the issue. Put a few stickers above your desk:

An apology always comes with a solution, recognition, due date and/or alternative.

Along with the excuses, your message should include:

  1. A temporary solution that allows the customer to continue waiting with no stress, or to find a substitution for the parts that are missing (if some features do not work, try to find a substitution or create a workaround manually; the order is out of stock, then search for a substituting product).

  2. Recognition of the mistake, its acceptance and correction. If something was broken, and you fixed it, but did not make any conclusions, then the customer cannot be sure whether he can trust you. Thus, do not be brief in your messages, and make sure to deliver the following message: we have fixed it, and we made certain conclusions and took preventive measures to ensure that does not happen again.

  3. If it takes some time to fix the issue, communicate it to the customer so he knows what to expect and when to expect it. When you set the due date, make sure you allow yourself some extra time to avoid situations of not meeting the deadlines: during the day, during a week, by the end of the week, 1-2 working days and so on. The main thing is setting a deadline. Once you have defined it, the customer stops pinging you, and you can exhale and focus on the working out a solution, and when someone else reaches out on the same issue, you have something to refer to.
Compensation
This is a big standalone topic: how to present, when to offer a compensation, and when just some kind words to the customer are enough. Here, we will cover the topic in brief. Now, we want to give an overview so you can think about it, and we will go into the details later.

The compensation totally depends on your product and your capabilities. Don't be too rational here, and don't be too generous also. Here are a few useful tips:

  1. Do not diminish the value of the compensation. Offer a compensation only when the customer actually has lost something (time or money), when he is ready to leave but you want to restore his loyalty (be careful with the amount of compensation, ridiculous amount will only make it worse). Otherwise, the customers will get used to the compensation and it will not be recognized as a gesture of reconciliation, but will be taken for granted.

  2. Estimate the volume: if this customer spends hundreds of thousands on your products, do not offer a compensation of $10, and vice versa.

  3. Give the team the freedom to choose a compensation, do not include it in the motivational system, otherwise, the operators will stop offering a compensation because of a fear to have their bonus cut off. A compensation offered to the customer should never be equal to the team's bonus reduction (the only exception is a big mistake leading to big losses).

  4. Compensation is not always money or products. You can offer personal services, delivery of flowers on a Saturday morning or send a poem to the customer. Everything that demonstrates a care and attention will work.

  5. Compensation should be offered BEFORE the customer gets angry and not after. This is a sort of magic to feel the moment right before the customer gets angry but it comes with experience, and you have always keep it in mind. If you are drafting an email to customer in which you explain that the customer will have to wait again, and it is not the first time you let the customer know that he has to wait, and the customer has showed his impatience already, then, it is a time to attach a compensation offer to the email. By doing this, you prevent the explosion (if compensation offer is appropriate in given context) and put the customer into the position of "debtor"; you gave him the compensation, and the customer owes you an understanding. If you offer a compensation after the customer had no choice but to ask for it or when he is already out of his patience, it either will not work ("leave it for yourself!", "I do not need your handouts"), or it will work the way it should not.

    What to do if after having an offer for a compensation, the customer start asking a discount? Read what we think about it — What to do when the customer asks for a discount..
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