The Competitive Advantage of Saying “I’m Sorry”

Imagine for a moment that your good friend calls you while you are swamped at work and you respond like this: “I’m currently busy assisting others, so please hold and I’ll be with you shortly. Your call is very important to me.”

How would your friend feel? I’m guessing not very important.  Unfortunately, this stilted and aloof speech is used by many companies. In Daniel Pink’s article, “My Challenge to You: Only Speak Like a Human at Work,” he labels this language ‘professionalese’ and says this distancing language we speak at work may be hurting our businesses more than we realize.

Pink quotes Virgin Atlantic who gave what he believes to be an insincere-sounding apology to passengers after they waited 4 hours on a runway with no air conditioning, food or water. The airline responded with “Virgin Atlantic would like to thank passengers for their patience and apologize for any inconvenience caused.”

Would you say that to anyone in real life? If not, is it helpful for a company to use this formal, distant and overused language in its apology?

Just as trust is important in a personal relationship, trust is important and constantly at risk in business relationships. “Trust depends on openness, respect and humanity,” says Pink. He continues by noting that Jason Fried, co-author of ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever, says that clarity (and we would add candor) is now a source of competitive advantage. People really appreciate businesses that are upfront and own up to their mistakes.

Pink goes on to highlight Jeffrey Kalmikoff, of Threadless, an online T-shirt company, who says, “The best way to figure out if you’re running a good company is to figure out if your customers trust your apology.”

Do your customers hear a sincere, clear, and meaningful response when you make a mistake or inconvenience them? Do you think they trust your apology?