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October 9, 2013 Readers Write No Comments

Maintaining Customer Loyalty Despite Our Mistakes
By Ryan Secan, MD, MPH

Who can spot the difference between these two uses of the words “I’m sorry”:

  • “I’m sorry you have a black eye” vs. “I’m sorry I punched you in the face”
  • “I’m sorry you lost money in a Ponzi scheme” vs. “I’m sorry I stole all of your money”
  • “I’m sorry you need another operation” vs. “I’m sorry I left an instrument in your abdomen”

In the first cases, “I’m sorry” is an expression of sympathy, in the second, it is an apology. The word that follows “sorry” makes all the difference. “I’m sorry you…” is an expression of sympathy, “I’m sorry I…” is an apology (also note the passive voice in the first examples vs. active voice in the second – this is classic for the “mistakes were made” rhetorical device).

It’s easy to see the difference in the above examples. The tough part is that when we’re deep in a situation (and maybe we’re feeling shame, or embarrassment, or want to avoid responsibility) it is easy to offer sympathy to someone who really deserves an apology. The victim dealing with the bad outcome, while likely appreciative of your sympathy, really wants and deserves an apology. Regardless of how much sympathy you offer, on some level, they are not going to be satisfied without a true apology.

In all aspects of life, there are occasional bad outcomes. As a physician, I unfortunately see these far too frequently. These can be in our business or personal relationships as well. Bad outcomes often take place despite our very best efforts to prevent them. The universe isn’t always fair.

However, sometimes we make mistakes that lead to the bad outcomes. Since we all want to provide great customer service (or have high quality relationships in our personal lives), these bad outcomes need to be addressed. In medicine, culture is finally shifting away from the expression of sympathy to the apology (when appropriate). At the University of Michigan, a comprehensive medical disclosure policy (including an offer of compensation) has been put into place leading to a significant decrease in new claims, lawsuits, and costs. Part of the reason this policy has been successful is that it includes a discussion of the plan for preventing the same mistake for happening again.

Also, don’t use the word “but” in your apology and expect it to mean something. Think of one of the examples above, and how it would sound with a “but” in it:

  • “I’m sorry I punched you in the face, but …”

What can you possibly say after the “but”, that isn’t an attempt to weasel out of responsibility and negate the apology? While you should explain what happened (and what you’re going to do to prevent it from happening again), don’t try to qualify your apology with it. Remember, even if they haven’t heard the saying before, intuitively, people know that “everything that comes before the ‘but’ is BS.”

The next time you make a mistake with a customer or in your personal life (and we know it’s going to happen soon enough), consider offering a sincere apology – (active voice, “I’m sorry I”, no “but”, best possible redress, and plan for prevention in the future). You might be surprised at how well this improves your customer’s loyalty.

Ryan Secan, MD, MPH is chief medical officer of MedAptus.

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