I don't know if you guys have watched this video about a customer's frustrated attempt to cancel his AOL account. Vincent Ferrari spent more than 20 minutes on the line with a joker from AOL (who subsequently got fired it seems). I am sure we all can empathise with Vincent Ferrari some way or other.
On a similar note, Seth Godinpointed to Yehuda's 10 ways of saying sorry by frontline associates, and what they truly mean. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is best:
"You can always take your business elsewhere." (1): Thank you, I will, and so will all of my friends.
"It's not our fault." (2): This is a non-apology, where you are not seeking to redress the issue, nor evincing any sort of sympathy for the injured.
"We're sorry that you feel that way." (3): This is also a non-apology, which roughly translates into "It pisses us off that you feel that way. If you didn't feel that way, we would be happy." It also doesn't take any responsibility for the problem, and places all of it onto the injured party. Be careful of any apology that starts "I'm sorry that you..."
"We're sorry if we did something wrong." (6): This is getting there, but doesn't really accept responsibility either. You are not acknowledging that you did anything wrong; you're still hoping that you haven't. You are offering an apology for appearances sake.
"We're sorry that this occurred." (7): You are sorry, but as a matter of principle you're still trying to insist that it wasn't really your fault.
"We're sorry that we caused this problem." or "We're sorry that we have let this happen." (9): This is a full apology, and is what the customer needs to hear. Frankly, it doesn't matter that it was really the post office's fault, and not yours; the customer doesn't care. Most people hearing this cannot help but respond with some sort of graciousness, such as "Well, all right then, these things happen. What are you going to do to fix it?" This is the target level that you want to hit for your customer service. But for the record, there is still one level to go. The complete apology is:
"We're so sorry that we caused this problem; we are really distressed over this. Please know that we take this very seriously. This is a huge oversight on our part. I will immediately notify my supervisor, and we will review our procedures to ensure that this cannot happen again. In the meantime, that is no consolation to you for our lack of service! What can we do to regain your trust? We will be sending you a little surprise as a token of our appreciation of having you as a customer." (10) In truth, this little speech goes on until the customer interrupts. And it is followed by a few more apologies as the conversation closes, as well.
I think the most important lesson out of all this is that we should learn to listen to our customers first. And I really do mean LISTEN and not just HEAR. Its a dialogue after all. Showing empathy and sincerity to one's customer is better than the slickest scripts that a consultant can prepare for you.