Customer Service During a Crisis: Apologize and Move On

By John Barham, International Editor

When a company blunders, perhaps badly, such as in a medical crisis, a utility failure, or just poor customer service, the first thing it should do is locate the enraged patient or consumer and say sorry. 

That is not standard operating procedure at many companies. But James E. Lukaszewski, a New York-based crisis communications consultant, says apologizing makes good business sense. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.

“It settles people down, it costs you nothing,” he says. “Put yourself in the victim’s shoes and look for places to be empathetic. It’s about being a human being. Each time you do this you gain something, and each time you don’t, you will make things worse.”

Corporate legal and public affairs departments usually take the opposite tack. Instead, companies bombard the media and consumer groups with defensive arguments, while they go about fixing the problem that started the crisis.

This is an inappropriate reaction, Lukaszewski told attendees at this year’s World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto. Companies don’t connect emotionally with an aggrieved customer. And it doesn’t matter how quickly they repair the fault or fire the guilty employee that triggered a client’s fury. “Companies are always being asked ‘what are you doing about the victims?,’ no matter how quickly they solved the actual problem,” says Lukaszewski.

He says victims’ reactions follow predictable patterns that companies can use to defuse a problem, preventing it from exploding into an unmanageable crisis that could damage its reputation, attract unwanted regulatory and media attention, and result in costly litigation. “Victims never come up with a surprising question, but the surprising thing is that we are not ready to talk about the questions that victims ask,” says Lukaszewski.

He says people suffer “intellectual deafness” the moment they have become victimized. They become unreasoning and demand immediate solutions for their situation. “Victims get their power from 24-hour victimization. They become emotionally energized. There is no greater power than victimization,” Lukaszewski says.

How can companies communicate with people in this state? Lukaszewski says executives should “listen to them, because they are asking a question that we all need to hear: ‘Who is responsible for doing this to me?’” Companies cannot make angry clients shut up or go away, but they can reduce their power to disrupt. “Answer their questions, and things will start to settle down. Meetings can get angry because we are not answering the questions that they are asking. If we fail to answer them, they will make something up because their view of the world is different from ours.”

Answers should be truthful, direct, and short. “An answer makes other people stop caring. Answer the question and people stop caring,” he says. “This will reduce the news value of what is happening.” News organizations are usually looking for things that have gone wrong, not crises that have been settled. Victims seek validation and recognition. They want to be vindicated, and they want an apology. “Apologies prevent and deter litigation, which is costlier than paying a settlement,” says Lukaszewski. “Failure to apologize makes [litigation] a terrifying risk.”

Patients and relatives treated with respect by hospital administrators and medical staff who have sincerely apologized for errors rarely sue. They are usually satisfied with an accurate explanation of what happened, a heartfelt apology, and fair compensation. Hospitals prefer to pay compensation than face expensive litigation that could undermine their reputation and their brand power.

Realization of the power of apology has been growing for about a decade. Lukaszewski says 19 state governments have enacted legislation that removes expressions of sympathy and apology after adverse medical outcome by staff as recognition of legal liability. As many as 29 states have applied this principle more broadly to include other events, such as accidents. He urges companies to abandon legalistic responses to a crisis and apologize quickly while they deal with the problem that caused distress. Apologies, he says, “have to be in the mindset of the corporation, they have to be in the mindset of everyone.”

There is a problem, though. Apologies may become so popular in corporate America, that consumers will see them as cynical ploys to evade just punishment for errors committed. Lukaszewski says: “Most cultures are built on forgiveness. If you do something wrong again, apologize again and you will be forgiven again.”


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