Saturday, 9 April 2016

Say sorry

I was taught that it’s always good to say sorry when something has gone wrong.

But some people are scared of doing so. That because they confuse apologizing with expressing regret. The difference is about responsibility. When I say I’m sorry that your auntie died I’m expressing regret and sympathy, not personal responsibility. I’m not confessing that I killed her.

The problem is that when many companies face a situation when saying sorry would be a good idea they are terrified that expressing regret will be seen as admitting guilt. And nobody wants to be seen as guilty. Guilt implies the need for punishment.

To be fair, sometimes punishment is necessary.

The first significant case Consumer Watchdog dealt with was the result of an accident in a supermarket in Gaborone. During poorly-signed maintenance in the store an elderly lady had tripped, fallen and suffered slight injuries. Although minor they required seven trips to hospital. She had approached the store management and they offered her a measly P210, P30 for every trip she took for medical attention.

That’s when she asked us for help. We spoke to the Regional Manager of the store chain and we asked if they couldn’t at least apologize and maybe offer her some compensation? His response was simple. She would get nothing more than the P210 they had offered and she certainly wouldn’t get an apology. The ‘S’ word would not be mentioned. “You know what these people are like”, we were told. The Regional Manager was clearly scared that a stream of elderly, dark-skinned ladies would be in his stores falling over in order to claim compensation.

Our response was simple. We discussed the situation on the radio and that’s when they got really angry. That’s when we got a “cease and desist” letter from their attorneys. We were to stop criticizing them and what they’d done. Or else.

Our next response was even simpler. We read the threatening letter out live on air a couple of days later. The response from the public was equally simple. How dare they? How could they treat a customer like this? Why don’t they go back to South Africa?

Some weeks later the store’s management got in touch with us. They told us that their turnover had shown a noticeable drop following the affair. It had cost them money. Would the customer be prepared to accept several thousand Pula in compensation?

The irony is that the lady hadn’t ever been seeking compensation, other than for her medical costs. She would have been content with nothing more than a decent apology but she was unfortunate enough to shop in a store where the management weren’t prepared to offer that.

Another irony Is that saying sorry is perhaps the best thing you can do when a customer feels wronged. Even if you say nothing more than “I’m sorry you’re feeling upset”, it offers the customer a sense that you care about their feelings, that you’re human enough to understand how they feel.

While on the subject of apologies I have to offer one. A few weeks ago both in writing and on air I covered a story brought to us by a reader. He’d hired a real estate agent to sell his house. He said:
“I need your advice on a certain estate agent with whom I had agreement with to sell my house for me since last year in October until I decided to cancel the sale agreement with them because i was not happy with their service.” He went on to say: “Now the agent expects me to him the entire amount of the 4% that he charged if he has sold my house.”
My advice was simple. Tell him to take a walk. He didn’t sell your house, he doesn’t deserve the 4%. Simple as that. I said this both in writing, online and on air.

Except it wasn’t that simple. The reader later came back to me saying the real estate agent had now instructed an attorney to recover the 4%, a total of P25,000 from him that he claimed he owed.

Only then was I told that the agent HAD found a buyer for the property who offered the full asking price. He told me:
“The Agent had found a buyer and the loan was approved for the buyer, the lawyers for the buyer issued a letter of undertaking to the bank and the transfer papers had been prepared and the Land Board mentioned that I couldn’t sell my house if it is the only property I have.”
So my advice was completely wrong. I should have asked more questions before dispensing my so-called wisdom and advice. The good news for me is that I didn’t name the real estate agent at any time, mainly because I was never told his name. To this day I have no idea who he is.

Nevertheless, if you are that agent and you read or heard what I said, then I’m sorry. I regret commenting without the full information and I apologize if you suffered any inconvenience based on my comments. Yes, you are owed your P25,000. However I wish you lots of luck in getting it. The reason he was selling his house is because he was jobless and desperate for money.

If I can do it, then you can do it. Even if the mistake you made wasn’t really your fault and you don’t feel like you were completely to blame, grow up and take responsibility for the mistake or misfortune that occurred.

Here’s a secret about apologizing. Customer like and respect companies who apologize more than they do companies who never had anything to apologize for in the first place. They see them as companies with humility, responsibility and humanity. Exactly the sort of company they’ll want to spend money with in future.

So find something to apologize for. Right now.

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