Every business leader in the world is facing a worrisome reality – sooner or later their company will experience a service failure. Websites go down, flights get delayed, deliveries get messed up – you name it. We all try to avoid them and yet, they keep popping up in unexpected situations.
If we accept the inevitability of service failures, we need to ask ourselves What can we do to alleviate the damage from them? How do we make sure that customers don’t churn? How do we bring customer satisfaction level back up? The fairly obvious answer is to offer something in return – a discount, an additional product, an upgrade – long-story short, something of utilitarian value. Usually these are coupled with some sort of symbolic action, and in most cases this happens to be an apology.
The power of appreciation
A study, recently published in the Journal of Marketing, draws on insights in the field of linguistic framing to suggest a better symbolic intervention – saying Thank you. In five different studies, using different service context and different measures of success (satisfaction, “intention to file a complaint, intention to ask for compensation, likelihood to accept the new service arrangement”), the authors find that saying ‘Thank you’ works considerably better than ‘We are sorry’. That is the case even when there is a utilitarian recovery effort added to the mix. Why is that? Because of a very human tendency – read on to find more.
“Make me feel better about myself”
What happens when someone apologizes to you? For one thing, it makes the conversation about the other party, not about you – after all, they are the ones apologizing. Secondly, while we can appreciate the honesty, an apology also leaves with a pinch of negative feeling – after all, the other party does admit they’ve done me wrong; it is easy to get into a victim mindset, isn’t it?
Consider now how do we feel when someone appreciates what we’ve done. We feel empowered, strong, we feel connected. The conversation is now about us, not about the other person, so naturally we are more interested. And that’s not just a grim view on human nature: a number of studies have found out that “people readily accept and positively respond to statements that converge with their desired beliefs about themselves (Ditto and Lopez 1992; Vonk 2002); this is because people are generally motivated to pursue a positive self-view (Heine et al. 1999; Klein, Blier, and Janze 2001; Schaumberg and Wiltermuth 2014).”
So it is this feeling of hightened self-esteem that embues saying Thank you with more power than apologizing. As the authors point out
“[t]he shift of focus in the service provider–consumer interaction, from emphasizing service providers’ fault and accountability (apology) to spotlighting consumers’ merits and contributions (appreciation), can increase consumers’ self-esteem and, in turn, postrecovery satisfaction.”
Now, showing appreciation to the customer doesn’t always work better than apologizing but importantly, under none of the investigated situations it works worse. The cases in which both have similar effect are quite interesting themselves: first, when customers self-esteem had already been elevated before the event; secondly, for people low in narcissismm (i.e. less likely to pursue self-esteem); and last but not least, when the mitigation effort is done prior to the service failure.
In a nutshell, if you want to increase customer satisfaction after there’s been a service failure, just ask your contact center colleagues to thank customers. It will work at least as well as apologizing and in most cases will actually do a better job. And it will make everyone feel better.
My best wishes for a great day ahead!