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When the customer hears “I’m sorry” too much

I had to call my bank the other day to resolve a problem I thought would be quick and easy. When I finally got a human, my expectations for fast resolution started downhill.
I’m convinced the lady on the other end must have had a sign glued to her computer screen that told her to: “Say you’re sorry!” I wish it had occurred to me to count the number of times she offered: “I’m sorry.” But I do know I heard it enough to figure she probably couldn’t care less. Maybe, with today’s technology, she was just hitting a key and a recording of her voice was saying, “I’m sorry!”

It caused me to recall a good lesson in customer service I learned some years ago. Specifically, customers’ satisfaction will drop quickly when they repeatedly hear apologetic lines to their requests for help. Research published in Business News Daily revealed that the increasing use of "sorry" will actually drop customer satisfaction at a fast rate.

According to Zendesk, a cloud-based customer service firm, “sorry” tops the list of irritants. But, surprisingly, expressions of "thank you" or "please” also rank high as turnoffs when used excessively. Overall, customer displeasure increases the more times they're told "sorry," "please" and "thank you.”

The explanation, at least in part, for this drop in customer happiness is that the increased use of these words is often due to multiple back-and-forth steps that result in a longer resolution time than the customer expects. Looking back on my experience with the bank, I’d have to agree when I wasn’t getting the quick resolution I assumed, I heard the words and my satisfaction sank fast.

"We've found there are triggers around the word 'sorry,' and when used more than twice there is a problem brewing," advised Sam Boonin, vice president of products at Zendesk.

Based on that, it seems that when employees feel the need to say “I’m sorry” more than twice, they should be aware they risk that the customer’s satisfaction level could quickly crash.

So, what’s the right action? Obviously, stop being sorry and find words that let the customer know you want to solve the problem. Instead of “I’m sorry,” how about expressions like: “I’m going to tackle that right now,” or “Let’s see if I can make this easier or faster for you,” or “I’m going to find the best way to solve your problem.”

If the customer’s problem can’t be fully explored quickly, it’s best to get the basic information and say you’ll call them back rather than have them holding on, which can easily lead to more “I’m sorry.” Moreover, try to give them a good idea of when you’ll call back.

A somewhat similar call-back example I often experience comes from Southwest Airlines. If I call the reservations center, I’m immediately told how long the wait is for an agent. But, so I don’t have to waste my time hanging on, I can leave my name and number and I’m told exactly how many minutes it will be when they’ll call me back. So far they’ve never missed, and that keeps me a happy customer.

"Our research shows that word choice and word frequency have a direct correlation with customer satisfaction," Boonin said.

To back it up, the study was no small undertaking. It was based on actual customer service and support interactions between 25,000 participating organizations and their customers across 140 countries.

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