Dealing with difficult customers and the art of the apology

A couple of weeks ago I had a very disappointing experience with a company that was doing some work around our house. The interaction got me thinking about customer service, apologies and how to handle difficult situations.

First, some background. We first worked with this company nearly 6 years ago, and all of our interactions up to now have been very positive. This particular service call was no different… at first. The company replied to my initial call for help quickly, provided me with some advice to try to troubleshoot the problem myself, and then arranged for a tech to come first thing the next morning to address the issue.

The disappointment arose at the billing stage. After paying the invoice, we received a second bill for a second service call–a service call which had not happened. When I contacted the company to inform them that the invoice had been sent in error, they maintained that there was no mistake and we had had two service calls.

After going back and forth over email a couple of times, the conversation was eventually escalated to a more senior staff person at the company. As soon as I received his email, I called him by phone thinking that would be a better way to try to straighten out the confusion.

The phone call did not go well.

By the end, I felt like I was being called a liar and a thief as he told me, “It’s not okay” that I was refusing to pay my invoice and stealing the equipment the tech had installed.

I understand that the company had checked their records and, according to their notes, I had had two service calls. I understand that the company has to trust its employees and support them.

However, I would also advise companies when dealing with difficult customers and situations to do everything possible not to let frustration boil over. For this particular person, he let his feelings about me and about the situation come out, and it left me with a lasting negative impression which undid years of positive interactions.

About an hour after the phone call, I received another email:

Talked to [the tech] again and asked him to check his paperwork – he did write the wrong address down (yet more justification we are getting GPS tracking on our vehicles)

Apologies for the mix up

Will have your favourite flowers delivered ASAP!
Please advise of type

I appreciated that the company had checked their files again and found the error. I appreciated that the individual had followed up with me. However, I felt like his apology missed the mark.

Several years ago I was given this article about 4 Steps to a Sincere Apology. It’s a good starting point to think through how to say you’re sorry in a meaningful way.

The admission – This initial step ensures that you’re talking about the same offense. For me, by the end of the interaction, my feelings were hurt. The offense had changed from being sent the wrong invoice to being called a liar and a thief.

“I apologize for my tone on our earlier phone call. I let my frustrations about the situation get the better of me, and I should not have spoken to you in that manner.”

The explanation – This part is about addressing “why” things happened the way they did. The explanation is mostly covered in his follow-up email where he explained that the tech had written the address down wrong. Although, addressing the comments he made on the phone would also be an important part of a good explanation.

“I talked to the tech again and asked him to check his paperwork. He did write the wrong address down, so that is why you received the second invoice by mistake. Prior to speaking to you, we had checked our paperwork several times, so that was why I was certain that we were correct in issuing you a second invoice. This was our mistake. “

Genuine regret and remorsefulness – With any apology, you want the recipient to feel like you mean what you’re saying. “Apologies for the mix up” does not convey genuine regret to me. Ditto with sending flowers. It’s flippant and does not address the offense. The article advises keeping it simple. Three words: “I am sorry.”

“I am very sorry for this experience. I understand that our interaction on the phone did not make you feel appreciated. You are a long-time customer of our company, and we value your loyalty.”

Make it right – The final step of an effective apology is to talk about how you’re going to fix it so the situation doesn’t happen again. GPS tracking is one step. The second part of this apology is addressing my hurt feelings.

“We are planning on adding GPS tracking on our vehicles, which should help to prevent mistakes like this in the future. I was very frustrated by the mix-up and that came out in my comments to you on the phone. Again, my sincere apologies.”

Apologies are a tricky form of communication. They stem from uncomfortable situations, and if not handled well can make the situation worse. Taking the time to think through an apology can go a long way to resolving a difficult, unpleasant interaction.

Remember, an apology is not about you. It’s about the recipient. Put yourself in their place and think about what matters most to the person you’re apologizing to.

Have you ever had a situation where you’ve had to apologize to a difficult customer? What’s the best apology you ever received?

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