The Authentic Apology: How do You Effectively Communicate “We’re Sorry” to Customers?

We’re sorry.

Are you really?

Seems the Canadian Transportation Agency didn’t believe that Air Canada was sufficiently sorry for leaving passengers stranded at airport gates because of overbooking flights. The CTA recently ruled the airline must compensate passengers more than $100 cash or a $200 flight voucher.

An authentic apology delivered effectively to a customer builds trust, satisfaction and strengthens an organization’s reputation.

An insincere or deficient apology does the opposite – sometimes even compelling customers to take drastic action. Apparently Air Canada’s meagre apologies incensed a few too many travellers, who took their complaints to the CTA. This could prove to be an expensive lesson for Air Canada to learn how to sincerely communicate “we’re sorry.”

Other organizations (are you listening, Toronto Hydro?) would be wise to take note. Here’s a refresher on how to deliver a genuine apology.

1. Words

“Credibility requires that an apology be immediate, unforced, sincere and specific in terms of what exactly one did that was wrong and who specifically has been hurt,” says Linda Stamato, a faculty fellow in planning and public policy at Rutgers University, in the Ivey Business Journal.

When we spent a miserable 18-hour period without heat and power in our home this winter, I was impressed when a VP of Toronto Hydro responded to my letter of complaint by immediately launching an investigation regarding the reasons for the lengthy outage. He conducted an internal investigation and sent us a letter summarizing the results. Essentially a series of errors on the part of Hydro employees contributed to the extended duration of the power failure. He also apologized for the inconvenience and frustration the blackout caused. So far so good. Until the second part of the apology….

2. Actions

In order to be meaningful, an apology requires actions to back it up. Companies need to do something suitable to show they want to make things right for the problem they caused for the customer; otherwise, words are hollow. This is where Air Canada got into trouble: being bumped from a flight at the last minute can be incredibly aggravating and problematic. A hundred bucks doesn’t cut it when you have to be at an important meeting or make a key connection.

Same for Toronto Hydro’s apology for our power outage – a blackout that went on for hours and hours because one Hydro employee forgot to investigate our initial call reporting power problems and another gave us an incorrect timing estimate for repairs and failed to request a meter base jumper to provide temporary power. When we asked for a Hydro credit for unnecessarily freezing in our home for 18 hours, being unable to cook, work or sleep and having to replace an entire fridge of spoiled food, we received a terse letter from Hydro’s insurance adjuster offering just $125 – much less than we requested.

To us, $125 seemed fair compensation for say, a broken blender. It didn’t, however, demonstrate to us sincere regret for almost causing us to freeze to death. And so we wrote to CEO Anthony Haines. No reply. Instead, we received a letter from a Hydro lawyer stating, “Toronto Hydro-Electric System Limited is under no liability to you for the matters raised in your letter.”

Here’s where Hydro’s apology fell apart. The organization did not try to make things right. It didn’t deliver an authentic apology, which requires not only appropriate words but also meaningful amends.

How executives handle mistakes has a direct impact on an organization’s reputation. At a time when the CTA is forcing Air Canada to pay more than $100 for a cancelled flight, Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines stands at the front of an organization that claims “we care about our customers” – and then offers $125 for causing a family to endure 18 hours without power, heat or light during a cold winter night.

Most organizations say they care about their customers, but does yours do the right thing to back up this claim when things go wrong? An authentic apology (the right words, the right actions) should be a standard part of every organization’s customer service policy. This is the right way to effectively communicate “we’re sorry” and to earn credibility and respect.

Oh and by the way, we declined Hydro’s $125. We felt it was insulting rather than apologetic.

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