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How apologies influence consumer behavior

Annoyed customer copyEarlier this month, I read a Wall Street Journal article titled The Art of the Airline Apology. The article features a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Nottingham’s School of Economics in the United Kingdom that found apologies can be more valued by customers than compensation.

In the study, more than 600 customers of the German eBay site who posted neutral or negative reviews of a transaction were sent an apology or compensation of under $7 to withdraw their online evaluation. Nearly 45% of customers who received the apology withdrew the evaluation, compared with about 21% of those who got compensation.

The study concluded that firms apologize so much because apologies do indeed influence customers’ behavior.

Although the article doesn’t reveal the content of the apologies, we can assume (being that customers accepted them) that they were effectively written. So what distinguishes an effectively written apology from the alternative?

  • Avoid corporate-speak in favor of empathy
  • Avoid boilerplate responses in favor of conversational language and tone
  • Avoid excuses in favor of sincere apologies
  • Avoid being coy in favor of being direct
  • Avoid managing the situation in favor of resolving it

Except for a very small percentage of customers who are trawling for perks or discounts, customers who complain genuinely feel wronged. And since most customers who feel wronged do not complain, when the (relatively) few choose to air a grievance, embrace it.

Use the critique to get better and, assuming the feedback produced a concrete action such as a policy revision or process change, convey this outcome within the apology to the source of the complaint. This will validate her feedback and, unlike a dismissive check, is likely to cement the relationship.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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