Sorry Doesn’t Always Make it Right..

..but it goes a long way

Recently Australia experienced a pivotal moment in its history. The newly sworn in Government apologised for the wrongs of the past inflicted on our indigenous people. It was symbolic clearing of the path to move forwards to bring a closer relationship between Indigenous and non indigenous people.

I found the ceremony moving, though it prompted me to wonder if saying Sorry is so profound and creates such major shifts; what is it that holds us back from saying “Sorry” more easily?

What is it that makes a well said “sorry” so impactful?

In business sorry is the oil that greases the wheel of service, calms the disappointed heart and heals the wounds of late delivery. Still it isn’t often heard in any effective manner.

Gary Chapman, author of “The Five Love Languages” suggests that each person has a different primary apology language. He says that if you don’t address your customer in his/her primary language they may consider your apology weak or insincere and will remain offended or irate.

He suggests five apology languages:

  1. Experiencing regret – “I am sorry.”
  2. Accepting responsibility – “I was wrong…”
  3. Making restitution – “What can I do to make it right?”
  4. Genuinely repenting – “I’ll try not to do that again.”
  5. Requesting forgiveness – “Will you please forgive me?”

He gives the following example:

Two ladies came into a restaurant for dinner. The waitress accidentally spilled a soft drink on one of the ladies. She apologised (1) immediately and got paper towels and cleaned up the table. She invited the ladies to move to another table. The maitre de asked the ladies if everything was alright but they were not happy. He asked them what had actually happened and they explained that the waitress had spilled the drink on one of them and she was now stained and sticky. The maitre de apologized (1) and said he would be happy to pay the dry cleaning bill and they would not have to pay for the meal (3). He said, “We appreciate your business and we certainly don’t want this kind of thing to happen.” He also said he would send another waitress over but they were still unhappy.

According to Chapman, the maitre de had only spoken two of the apologies and apparently the unhappy lady spoke one of the other three.
He or the waitress did not accept responsibility – “I was wrong, it was my fault “; he didn’t give any sign of genuine repentance – no plan for seeing this didn’t happen in the future; he didn’t ask for forgiveness!

It is clear that Sorry is communicated at different levels to different people and an insipid sorry is often taken as an insult.

A colleague tells a story of hanging up on a service provider after being on the receiving end of spectacularly bad service; she could cope with the bad service, she couldn’t cope with the excuse when she asked for an apology.

At the other end of the scale I know of a company which has empowers its customers interfacing staff to ask “What can we do to make this right for you?” This question is music to the few customers with the apology language of making Restitution – and while it does not cost much in dollar terms it reaps huge returns in satisfied repeat business.

Often we get angry/disappointed over a perceived missed expectation in service delivery. In the case where procedures have been followed and service levels have been met, a simple apology using the 5 languages will go a long way to easing angst at zero cost to the business.

Coming back to question of what holds us back from saying sorry. My belief is that Sorrys are withheld because of fear of the cost to ourselves at a personal level (pride, ego, loss of face). For example think of the macho image outside the nightclub accidentally being knocked into by a passer by. A simple Sorry could save so many bruises.

There is also the fear of cost or loss in dollar terms at a business level. For example one company I know who didn’t give a full early apology using the five steps is now facing a court case. It is not certain, but a guess is that their customer would have been much more amiable to the five step apology 2 months ago with a real dollar restitution cost; and lawyer’s fees could have been saved.

Our insurance industry does not aid us to say Sorry. So many insurance polices are voided if we as much as admit responsibility for our actions. I rear ended a very nice Saab a few years ago. The fault was mine; there was no doubt in any way. I looked at the resigned face of the driver of the Saab, and choked. I couldn’t apologise to her as I would void my insurance policy and I knew the dollar cost of repairs would then be mine, not the insurance company.

Today I like to think she would receive a heartfelt apology with all five languages (and a request to help me with the insurance claim form!)

So if you get the opportunity to apologise for having disappointed someone on a personal or business level; try practicing using the 5 languages;

and, if you see me in your rear view mirror – don’t slam on the brakes on your car!

Liz Cassidy is a Brisbane based Transformational Executive Coach, Speaker, Author and Facilitator.

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