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  • Writer's pictureNick Bonney

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Many years ago on my first date to a ‘proper restaurant’ for the first time; the waiter brought our food and offered us black pepper from one of those giant pepper grinders which only ever seem to be found in Italian restaurants with red and white checked tablecloths. Unfortunately, the sheer size of the device seemed too much for her and she promptly dropped it … right into my steaming bowl of pasta. In an instant my brand new Concept Man top (River Island these days kids, Google it!) now resembled the end result of a Jackson Pollock brand partnership with Napolina.

As a meek 17 year old I simply took it on the chin (I can’t even remember if they gave us money off our bill!) but as time has gone on, I seem to have become less meek and more Meldrew! If something goes wrong, sitting in silence and being terribly British about it gets you nowhere; if you’re not getting the service you deserve and for which you’ve paid, it’s far better to say something there and then. If that doesn’t resolve things there and then, a well penned complaint letter should at least get you some compensation to ease the pain.

The interesting thing about this is that it’s often the way that a business responds in these circumstances that truly sets them apart. Put simply, customer focused brands are brilliant at service recovery - the ability to recognise when something has gone wrong, apologise for it and swiftly propose a solution. These brands seem to have a knack for showing empathy towards a frustrated or distressed customer and instantly putting you at ease, safe in the knowledge that somebody has not only heard you but has listened and is trying to do something about it. I’m sure I’m not alone that almost ever time I not only leave feeling better about the brand but I also accept a less costly solution to my problem than if I complain after the event.

The challenge of course is that, in many businesses, processes and procedures have been written in a way where this sense of empathy feels like it has been replaced with ‘computer says no’ and yet the empirical evidence for excelling here is pretty clear; virtually every study done in this area demonstrates we are far more likely to tell people about a bad experience than a good one. In an environment where many businesses are obsessed with recommendation scores or NPS programmes, it seems counter intuitive that there is not greater emphasis placed on these service recovery moments.

Jonah Berger has written extensively about the drivers of Word of Mouth in his book Contagious. His STEPPS model outlines his view on the triggers which make us share an experience (good or bad) and it’s easy to see why we love to share our nightmare moments.

Jonah Berger's STEPPS Model
Jonah Berger's STEPPS Model (C) Jonah Berger

Firstly, these are often great stories, which we can share at length with friends or colleagues , drawing them in to our angst and building up to the cliff-hanger of whether we got our issue resolved. Secondly, these stories are rich with emotion; As Berger snappily muses ‘when we care, we share’. Finally, there is a strong theme of social currency (particularly if we’ve managed to ‘get one over on the Man’) boosting our egos by showing we’re not someone to be trifled with.

So what stops businesses applying this dose of common sense and addressing any issues there and then? One of the issues here is that any refunds or credits are often seen as wastage and a line on the P&L to try to drive down rather than one which can also create value. There’s so much focus on stopping problems happening in the first instance that the softer skills of how to respond when it does seem to disappear into the ether. This is often exacerbated by legacy financial reporting structures make it nigh on impossible to establish a clear line of sight between the root cause, the problem, the resolution and the customer outcome. As a result, many businesses are often carrying hidden costs or lost opportunities that are lurking in the shadows of the P&L.

However, before we take the moral high ground as marketers, perhaps we need to take our own share of the blame here. In recent times, much of the narrative in the CX industry has been about capturing more data, more quickly. The focus is often on getting as close to the moment of interaction rather than understanding the longer term picture. This can undoubtedly be a fantastic enabler of service recovery when accompanied by an effective closed loop and case management programme but all too often the primary focus is something different – a desire to ensure that dashboards are seen to be coloured in more quickly. Yet, somewhere lost in all these scorecards are these rich customer stories; the longitudinal view of a customer experience which enables us to genuinely connect with how customers are feeling and allows a business to genuinely learn from where it’s gone wrong.

It’s here that we come back to the S word. Sorry. Research shown by the Carey School of Business has shown that, in a complaint situation, 37% of customers are happy if they receive compensation. When accompanied by an apology, that satisfaction level doubles to 74%. When a business starts by putting itself in the customer’s shoes, more often than not, the situation is likely to have a more positive outcome. This doesn’t mean the customer is always right; of course customers can be rude, aggressive and even fraudulent in cases but seeing the world through their eyes is a great place to start.

Ironically though, in this era of the dashboard, it’s often qualitative components of CX programmes which are seen as ‘nice to have’. When push comes to shove (i.e. when budgets get cut!) , it’s these very elements which allow us to build empathy that end up on the cutting room floor. There was perhaps justification for this when qualitative research was often slow and expensive but this is simply no longer the case.

The reason the ‘Dear CEO’ e-mail nearly always triggers a response is that, for many senior leaders, it’s often one of the few times they are confronted with the reality of the service their customers are actually experiencing. Yet, we have the tools to cut through the corporate clutter which gets in the way of senior leaders hearing their customers’ voices.

Most vox pop platforms are easily integrated into survey tools and even more fully-fledged video ethnography platforms like Fieldnotes, Watch Me Think or Indeemo are both simple and cost effective to implement. It’s easier than ever both to understand the journey but also to produce compelling content which can build empathy for customers across the business. Time for us to shake things up!...


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