"Sorry" Seems to be the Hardest Word

In December, Patreon, a recurring donation site, angered many patrons by announcing plans to charge a service fee on every transaction, of any dollar size. Realizing the company's mistake, CEO Jack Conte did something remarkable: He said, "I'm sorry."

The news here isn't that Patreon is going to come up with a different approach for earning revenue, it's that a company that made a mistake and apologized for it. The CEO didn't blame others or say that he had to research the facts—statements that we hear all too often, as there is always something to research. Instead, he looked at the situation through the eyes of his customers and their patrons and responded in a manner that calmed the situation. By saying and doing the "right" thing, the controversy was quickly defused, as compared to the United Airlines debacle, which is still front of mind months later and a case study of what not to do in response to a customer relations disaster.

"I'm Sorry" De-Escalates Situations

When it comes to consumer relations or customer service, it's surprising how impactful the words "I'm sorry" really are. These simple words de-escalate emotionally charged situations by showing the kind of empathy that has become uncommon in the business world. Having visited hundreds of contact center sites, I've seen firsthand the power of the words "I'm sorry" and how they often change the dynamic of a phone conversation or email discussion. But they work their magic only if a company trains and empowers their staff to use them.

Most executives and their lawyers, who often have oversight for press releases, are taught never to accept responsibility for something that goes wrong, and the words "I'm sorry" connote some sort of responsibility, or so I've been told. Even when a situation is irrefutable, as in the case of the United Airlines situation, many lawyers do not want executives to publicly acknowledge that an action taken by the company was wrong. As we've seen time and time again, the lack of basic kindness or empathy inflames the public, resulting in an outcry and backlash.

Social Media is NOT the Cause

Social media allows bad (or good) situations to escalate more quickly than they did 20 years ago. Still, it is not the cause of negative publicity, which is the sole responsibility of companies that continue to adhere to a strict code of conduct that has been out of touch with the needs of their customers for many years. But given the influence and speed with which social media brings issues to the attention of the public, executives need to rethink how they are perceived, particularly in challenging times. While saying "I'm sorry" doesn't work when the company or executive clearly doesn't mean it, an expression of apology is often well-received and can buy the time needed to research and figure out how to respond to and rectify difficult situations.

A sincere apology is not necessarily an admission of responsibility or guilt, but instead an acknowledgement that something has gone wrong and is upsetting. Although companies are not human, they can have a heart, and showing that they care can improve public perception and their bottom line.