Customers Don’t Want Apologies, They Want Solutions

When it comes to delivering customer service during a time of crisis, customers don’t want polite apologies and sympathy—they want fast solutions, according to new research from Jagdip Singh, a professor of marketing at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

Though companies are rarely able to share recorded customer service conversations due to privacy concerns, Singh’s team was able to analyze 111 customer service interactions at U.S. and UK airports because they were filmed for a reality TV show, and customers had already signed privacy waivers.

When analyzing these interactions, Singh and his team grouped the agents’ responses to customers’ problems as either “relational work,” which involved apologizing and showing sympathy, or “problem-solving work,” which meant more direct attempts at resolving the issue at hand. The differences in satisfaction, Singh found, were stark.

“What we were finding was that in these situations of problems where customers are working under time pressure, the solving work is the dominant factor in customer satisfaction,” Singh said during an interview with HBR Ideacast, a podcast from the Harvard Business Review. In other words, customers were left much more satisfied with solution-oriented engagements versus simply apologetic ones.

This is likely because apologetic encounters are seen as time-wasters. “Relational work—showing empathy or showing warmth or forging personal connections—the words used up in these kinds of work is actually perceived to be not very helpful because in their mind it distracts from the solving work that is essential for the customer to have good options,” Singh said. “Empathizing by itself is not the problem,” he added. It only becomes negative when “it is at the cost of solving.”

Aside from the time factor, Singh believes there are also psychological reasons that explain why agents that act like problem-solvers are more satisfactory to customers.

“Competence and warmth, the two dimensions of behavioral dispositions among humans, they are negatively correlated in general,” Singh said. In other words, customers sometimes subconsciously assume that agents who are overly apologetic or warm are incompetent at their jobs. “The people who are very good solvers tend to not be overly empathetic or engage in relational work. They keep focused on the careful cognitive effort that’s needed to look for these options,” he said.

For companies, this research points to a potential need to change the way they train customer service representatives. The key is to prioritize actions and solution seeking in customer service interactions, not offer apologies that do little to solve problems.

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