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Key Elements of an Effective Apology: Why Apologies Go Wrong

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There have been several high-profile apologies – or lack thereof – in the corporate world of late. It has me reflecting on the quality of an apology – something I talk about often in my line of work as a Vice President of Customer Engagement for VereQuest.

Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) for any company with a call centre are front-line workers. They interact with the public, and in the course of any workday, can deal with situations in which there has been a mistake, an oversight, or an event that has frustrated the customer. Often the stakes are high: a mortgage, large payment or an illness might be in the offing. In these situations, an apology is often required. But it’s not just the apology that counts. It’s the quality of that apology.

Is an Apology Enough?

Recently, some strife at Tim Hortons has been in the news. In December, 2014, the company was bought by 3G Capital, a private-equity firm. 3G Capital merged Tim Hortons with its Burger King chain to form Restaurant Brands International Inc. But Marina Strauss of The Globe and Mail reported on Mar 16, 2017 that franchisees have been unhappy with head office management layoffs, cutbacks and a new, more regimented management style.

Strauss further reported in a Mar 31, 2017 article (“Tim Hortons Bosses Apologize, Vow Changes Amid Revolt”) that the President of Tim Hortons, Mr. Diaz Sese, had a call with his franchisees in which he apologized: “We may not have listened enough,” Mr. Diaz Sese said on the internal call, a recording of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail. “Please know this was never our intention. And I am truly sorry for this.”

So there it is – the apology. But was it enough?

What Makes an Apology Work?

For an apology to be considered high quality, and therefore sincere, it must check the boxes of several elements.

In a Nov 13, 2013 article entitled “The Five Ingredients of an Effective Apology,” Psychology Today states that an effective apology needs to “have the following key ingredients:

  1. A clear ‘I’m sorry’ statement.
  2. An expression of regret for what happened.
  3. An acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated.
  4. An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of our actions on the other person.
  5. A request for forgiveness.

The most important of these five ingredients and sadly, the one we tend to omit most often, is the empathy statement.”

As our VereQuest clients know, I’m a huge fan of empathy, so I certainly agree with that. I can’t think of anything, frankly – in the business world or otherwise – that doesn’t improve with empathy.

Roy Lewicki, professor emeritus of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, was the lead author of a study published in 2016 on the elements of a good apology. He and his team suggest there are six elements:

  1. Expression of regret
  2. Explanation of what went wrong
  3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
  4. Declaration of repentance
  5. Offer of repair
  6. Request for forgiveness

Both of these lists are excellent. And I would add more important element to a solid, genuine apology: timing.

Timing is Everything

Mr. Diaz Sese’s apology to his Tim Hortons’ franchisees lacked in its timing. It came after much of the company’s recent dirty laundry had already been aired in the newspaper headlines. Of course an apology isn’t even on the table until the infractor realizes a mistake has been made, but waiting to see if the problem might just go away, or can be swept under the rug, or dealt with through backchannels, only exacerbates the often fraught situation.

Poor timing makes an apology’s sincerity suspect. Did Mr. Diaz Sese apologize to his Tim Hortons’ franchisees only when he realized that the company looked bad to the public? No matter how he answers that question, it will be hard to regain the trust of his franchisees. And they, in turn, must regain the trust of their customers, whom they feel have felt the brunt of the cuts.

Mr. Diaz Sese and his head office now face a problem. They have made an apology, but it’s likely only being seen as partially effective. Now he must do the hard work of what comes next: the follow-through. He has been specific in what he plans to do to remedy the current situation – that is good. Specificity can earn trust. But he will have to show evidence of action – and his timing on that follow-through will have to be better than the timing of his apology. Otherwise, his sincerity could be questioned again. As Stephen Covey wrote in his excellent book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, “You can’t talk your way out of problems you behave yourself into.”

Senior Management Buy-In

In my line of consulting, I am often focused on training CSRs in the delivery of a high quality apology. But if the head of the company can’t deliver one successfully, how can its front-line workers? It’s up to senior management to role model great behaviour in times when an apology is necessary.

All of this applies also to a recent spate of airline customer service trouble. When Neil Crone and Kathryn Kelly were bumped from their recent Air Canada flight to Miami, they were dismayed and inconvenienced. They lost a day of their vacation. The CBC website’s article by Sophia Harris reported: “Air Canada … does occasionally oversell flight”. It said the practice helps keep costs down and enables the airline to offer fare categories where customers have the flexibility to change their flights. Cases where customers actually end up getting bumped due to overbooking “are very rare,” said Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick in an email. He added that anyone who does get bumped gets a seat on the next available flight and is compensated for their troubles. When CBC News asked Fitzpatrick about Crone’s case, he offered an apology for the travel disruption. He also said that after reviewing the incident, the airline decided to cover the couple’s $300 US bill for the Miami hotel.

Again, in this case, it seems that the apology was only forthcoming when the media became involved. The timing of the apology impacts its quality because now the apology appears self-serving. It seems as though Air Canada only covered the passengers’ extra costs, caused by its bumping of the passengers’ seats without agreement on the part of the passengers, because the press was watching.

Get it Right the First Time

And of course, the most obvious example of botched apologies concerning overbooking airline flights comes to us courtesy of United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.  After a paying customer was video taped being injured during his forcible removal from an aircraft solely to make room for United personnel to fly in his place, Mr. Munoz offered a weak apology for “having to re-accommodate these customers.”  His second kick at the can a day later was much better, displaying empathy, offering condolences, taking responsibility, and showing some ownership. Unfortunately, all those positive aspects were undercut by timing:  the good apology came second, and it came late.  As a result, we all have the impression that the true feelings of Mr. Munoz and United airlines were revealed in the first apology, and the second was merely damage control brought on by some very bad press.

Delivering on the promise to “fix what’s broken so this never happens again” is a tall order for United to fulfill even if they had jumped out in front of the issue right away.  Sadly, the timing of that promise will make the job that much more difficult.   To be as effective as possible, good apologies must have good timing.  And they must be modeled by executive staff, not just by front-line workers.

 Kirk Dunn, Vice-President Customer Engagement – VereQuest

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