Customer service: Why sorry doesn’t have to be the hardest word
What’s in an apology? Back in 2013, news surfaced that an extremely popular brand of Yoga leggings was – during workout regimes – revealing more of their owners’ posteriors than their owners had initially realised.
The company, Lululemon, was under pressure to explain why the yoga pants were stretching and sheering so badly under seemingly light bending and flexing. Their enigmatic founder, Chip Wilson took to a breakfast TV interview with Bloomberg, to offer his retort. He decided to go on the offensive, blaming the owners instead of the product.
“Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work for it.”
This, and the comments that followed, did little to help the situation, causing uproar from customers and hysteria in the US media.
And amid the puns about the effect such comments might have on the company’s “bottom line”, Chip Wilson was forced to take to YouTube to apologise. The issue being, his attempt was far from heartfelt, forgetting to mention the company’s customers at all.
To this day, Lululemon is still synonymous with the story, and Chip Wilson still fields questions about how he handled the situation.
"I think I have to [apologise] because I said it,” he told CBS last December. “I'm responsible for what comes out of my mouth. And if that's what was interpreted then I fully apologise. Yeah. I'm sorry."
The cost of an apology
When something goes wrong between a customer and a brand, the customer wants their issue fixed, first and foremost.
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However, research shows that apologies can go a long way to retaining a customer in the aftermath of a complaint. The Cary School of Business, for instance, found that 37% of customers are satisfied with service recovery when they are offered something of monetary value (e.g., a refund or credit). But when the business adds an apology on top of the compensation, satisfaction doubles to 74%.
The cost of not apologising for a fault can also be catastrophic. Wilson claims Lululemon lost $6 billion in market share as a result of the Yoga pant fiasco. US businesses, across the board, are estimated to be losing $83bn a year due to poor customer service. Given that 14% of consumers now share poor experiences on social media, getting a problem fixed is only half the battle. But an additional, sincere apology can do wonders for a brand’s relationship with a customer.
Sorry as a Service
All this may sound like an attempt to teach customer service professionals to suck eggs, but such is the importance placed on efficient and effective apologies in customer support, that a new type of business is emerging to assist with the issue.
Hailing from Estonia, Sorry as a Service is attempting to add a new layer of precision to the humble apology. Despite having only been developed two years ago as part of a hackathon, its four co-founders have built up an impressive customer base including BT and Autoglass, thanks to a simple but effective product that plugs into a company’s CRM and allows customer support teams to send bespoke apologies and gifts to customers when a complaint has been escalated beyond a certain point.
Sorry as a Service works with independent companies such as bakers, chocolatiers and florists, acting as the intermediary between a brand and its customer. If a support agent believes a customer deserves a gift and a personalised apology as a result of a complaint fielded to their brand, the agent is able to select a series of options or type the requirements into a pop-up box, and Sorry as a Service does the rest. Delivering bespoke gifts and handwritten apologies, to the customer’s front door.
“The personal relationship is being taken away from customer service, especially in larger companies,” says Indrek Poldvee, the company’s head of customer development.
“Everything is becoming more and more digital. More and more automated. Obviously, the mandate for many big businesses is to bring that personal relationship back but maintain scale. That’s why we wanted to introduce the idea of Sorry as a Service – to offer a traditional approach to a modern problem.
“We are losing the human touch in customer service. Big companies often come across as too corporate in moments such as this, when a complaint has been made and there’s been a failure in delivery or service. Our aim is really to give customer support teams as great an opportunity as possible to offer something personal to customers, and to go the extra mile to show they care.”
Age of personalisation
The personalised element matters. 2015 research by MyBuys found that 52% of shoppers buy more when retailers use cross-channel personalisation, while 74% of people get frustrated when a brand communication fails to offer a personalised element, such as getting to know their interests. A report by Conlumino and Webloyalty in 2015 suggested top UK retailers were missing out on up to £66 million per year in lost revenue by failing to deliver better personalised experiences.
The personal relationship is being taken away from customer service, especially in larger companies
But while Sorry as a Service offers more of a personable feel, can it ever be truly personal when it’s a third-party company doing the heavy lifting?
“Apologies don’t always come as a result of a complaint or an unresolved query,” says Poldvee.
“If you take Autoglass as an example – they have certain glass repairs that they know, because of the type of repair, may take longer or may not be successful first time. In these instances we’re able to send a message out to the customer pre-empting the fact that the repair might be trickier than normal and to apologise and to ask that the customer bears with them whilst they get the problem resolved.
“In these moments, customers are given a surprise in advance and it’s this sort of awareness that improves customer satisfaction levels. To be able to do this at the click of a button, and at scale, is a big deal for a major brand dealing with thousands of customers every day.”
As the UK’s longest-running telecoms company, BT experiences some of the highest complaint volume in the country. In the last quarter of 2013, for instance, Ofcom logged 0.32 complaints regarding BT per 1,000 customers. Given that the number of BT customers surpasses the tens of millions, this is substantial. In Q2 of 2016, the national UK telecoms regulator claims to receive nearly 300 complaints about BT per day.
Clearly, this kind of volume causes churn issues as a result, however in Sorry as a Service's pilot programme with BT, they ran a test with four different customer support agent teams to measure the impact various personalised 'delights' had during and after higher-level complaints had been made.
The telecoms provider saw a reduction in the usual churn levels experienced during similar complaint volume, and agents received between 90-95% positive feedback from customers via email, phone or social media.
And Sorry as a Service has already branching out to cover off welcomes, thanks and congratulations as a service too, all built into the same system to better aid support staff when they want to make a customer’s experience with a brand a little more memorable.
“Version two of Sorry as a Service is making the platform more intelligent,” adds Poldvee. “Whilst at the moment, a problem will arise and our technology will give support staff the power to send personalised gifts, version two involves predicting what kind of gifts are required and suggesting the sort of gift that would suit the apology based on what type of interaction has been logged with the customer previously.
“So if you have a customer who has had, say, two substantial issues with your company within the last seven days and was logged as being frustrated in both of them, the type of apology and gift might differ from say, someone who has logged a complaint in one interaction. Our aim is to build up enough data within a company that we can predict what will work best with which company.
“It will also be able to determine when a gift is appropriate. Metrics, such as NPS, will help guide the predictive side within the CRM and trigger when someone’s birthday comes around and send them something, for instance.”
The service may put more automation into the hands of the brand and their customer support staff, but seemingly, the bespoke and highly personable nature of the gift at the other end really matters to customers.
According to a Walker study, by the year 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as a key brand differentiator. 86% of buyers will pay more for a better experience with a brand. Ensuring experiences stay positive even during moments of complaint and apology may well define how likely customers are to stick with that brand even more, as a result. Chip Wilson and his transparent Yoga pants can no doubt vouch for that.
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Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.