Stop apologising to customers and start leading them

What do I do to make you want me
What have I got to do to be heard
What do I say when it’s all over
And sorry seems to be the hardest word

Elton John told us in 1976 that sorry can be the hardest word, but as professional customer service agents, we are well practiced in the art of the apology. There are some situations when sorry comes too easily and can be detrimental to your customer relationships.

SAAS products always change over time. The product team adds features, remove functionality, modify behaviours and otherwise impact the experience for current and future customers.

Inevitably some customers prefer the old behaviour, relied on certain features or had built systems around a specific setup. They may be angry, fearful, disappointed or confused, and they’ll let you know.

Faced with those response, empathetic customer service people easily swing into full apology mode. Reinforcing the customer’s feelings, offering sympathy and a channel to make their complaints and demands heard. When a product is broken because of bugs or systems failures or it’s not fully rolled out, that’s an excellent approach to take.

When there has been a deliberate change though — one that is important for future development and that almost certainly won’t be changing back — then that sort of apology can be counter productive. If you know that a feature has been removed and is gone for good, it’s unhelpful to offer false hope to a customer of “recording your feedback” and “voting for that to be returned”. It will probably never happen.

They’ll be left still disappointed by the change, but also be waiting fruitlessly for an ‘improvement’ that doesn’t come. It’s unfair and misleading to them. So what’s the alternative?

Leading our customers forward

When you understand why a change has been made, you can help move the customer past being upset about a change to optimism about the long term direction of the product.

  • Acknowledge their feelings — Even very positive change can be disruptive and upsetting. Active listening and reflection is a vital first step because you can’t lead a customer until they are willing to follow. That means “I hear that you are upset and I understand why you would feel that way” but not “I’m sorry we did this”.
  • Share your vision of the future — Now that you’ve acknowledged their frustrations and concerns, help them to understand the change in terms of what it enables for the future. Is it a change to allow amazing new features down the track? To fix another bigger issue? To improve reliability or performance? Help them see the long term benefits are worth the short term hassle.
  • Engage with them and open up a conversation — Take the opportunity to ask the customer how we can help them become much more successful. How do they see the future, what resources could we give them that would help this small issue be insignificant compared to their future success.

    Everybody loves to be asked for their opinion and to be heard, and we’ll learn valuable information we can share with the team.

A recent example:

“You’ve taken away my ability to change the colour of the links, I need that to white label the app properly!”

Even a well crafted “apology” can be unhelpful in this situation:

“I’m really sorry about that, I’m going pass this feedback on to our product team and I’ll record your vote for that to be fixed up later. We hate to make your life harder!”

Instead, try something like this:

“You’re right, we have reduced your flexibility, and I can see that makes it harder for you. I know that is frustrating. I’d love to share with you some of the reasons we did this; it was in part to allow for our product teams to move a lot faster in bringing you and your clients some pretty amazing new functionality.

Doing this kind of customer relationship building and leadership effectively requires help from the rest of the company.

  • You need to understand the long term direction of the product.

    You can’t share the vision if you don’t know the vision.

  • You need to understand the “why” behind product changes, so you can differentiate “this is broken” from “this is a deliberate change, for this reason”. Design and product teams help here.
  • You need authority and ability to spend the time. If you’re always under pressure to resolve and move on, opening up a longer conversation is a much harder path to take.
  • Everybody needs to present a consistent message. If a customer hears from you that it’s a deliberate change with a positive goal in mind, but from a colleague that “we may change this back based on feedback”, they’ll distrust all their interactions with everyone.

Lead your customers towards greater success and they’ll thank you for it.

This post originally appeared on Medium. If you’d like to read more insights from the incredible Mathew Patterson, make sure to check out our interview with him.

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