The Apology

How to deal with the inevitable customer complaint

The Apology

Some would call Larry Shideler an icon in the professional cleaning industry. A former building service contractor, he went on to develop the first backpack vacuum cleaners nearly 30 years ago.

Once, in an interview with a staffer at ISSA, he was asked how difficult it was getting the company off the ground. He said there were a multitude of problems and issues initially, but then added, “If you can survive the cleaning business, you can survive anything.”

What he was referencing, according to the staffer, was that the professional cleaning business can be filled with many challenges and customer complaints. While this may be truer for those who provide cleaning services, jansan distributors are likely to have their fair share of customer-related issues as well.

Recognizing that complaints come with the cleaning territory, so to speak, cleaning contractors and distributors need to realize that it is not the customer complaint that is the big concern. The biggest concern is how the situation is addressed from the moment it is brought to the contractor’s or distributor’s attention.

The Study Says…

Many experts in customer relations suggest that when a customer comes to you with a problem, the best action to take is to apologize quickly and often. While apologizing quickly is certainly warranted, it is the apologizing often that can get us into trouble.

This is the conclusion of a study conducted by Case Western Reserve University of Cleveland. To come to this conclusion, the researchers videotaped airport customer service representatives dealing with unhappy passengers. These passengers’ complaints included that their luggage was lost, that they had missed a flight, that a flight delay was causing them problems, and a host of other issues all too common in the air travel industry.

The researchers made 111 videotapes. They also interviewed the unhappy passengers, asking them to evaluate how well the customer service representatives handled their situations.

The researchers categorized the tapes into two different groups. The first set of videotapes depicted customer service representatives apologizing throughout the customer interaction. They showed the representatives expressing considerable empathy, and in some situations, the representatives attempted to personalize the interaction—essentially trying to make friends with the unhappy passenger. These representatives also remained smiling and cheerful during their conversation with the customer.

The second set of tapes was almost the opposite of the first. Yes, the representatives apologized to the passengers for the problems they were experiencing, but only once or twice at the beginning of the conversation, and that was all. Further, the cheerfulness was replaced with a more serious, problem-solving attitude.

The study revealed that the representatives who expressed a great deal of empathy for the passengers, apologized frequently, and tried to remain cheerful did a poor job of satisfying the passengers. In some cases, this approach backfired completely. When interviewed, passengers indicated that they did not believe the representatives were competent, nor did they believe their issues would be rectified promptly.

The second group of representatives did far better when it came to customer satisfaction. After the initial apology, their focus was on problem-solving. They were looking for solutions, and they even asked the unhappy passengers what steps they suggest the representative should take to remedy the situation. These steps made the passengers feel much more confident that their situations would be resolved as quickly as possible.

Lessons for Contractors and Distributors

So how can cleaning contractors and jansan distributors use the results of this study to improve their client and customer relations? Here are a few ways:

When a problem or incident occurs, apologize only at the beginning of the conversation. The researchers found that the apologizing phase of handling a problem should take place in the first seven seconds of the interaction and end after that.

Treat the situation with seriousness. Although smiling and remaining cheery in general can be the right attitude to have in the workplace, when a customer-related complaint or problem must be addressed, it can make the customer feel less confident in your ability to rectify the situation.

Once the problem is understood, move as quickly as possible into problem-solving.

Suggest more than one solution and encourage customers to offer their suggestions for how the problem can be rectified.

Finally, while it was not explicitly addressed in the study, researcher Jagdip Singh said that using “scripts” or suggesting employees use certain words or phrases to handle a complaint will likely not improve the situation. “It’s impossible to script these encounters because aspects of every issue are unique. Instead of obsessing over the perfect language to use, [contractors and distributors] should learn to dive in, get into the task, and generate interesting options for the customer—that makes all the difference.”

Source: Frontline Problem-Solving Effectiveness: A Dynamic Analysis of Verbal and Nonverbal Cues, by Detelina Marinova, Sunil K. Singh, and Jagdip Singh (Journal of Marketing Research).

Michael Wilson

Vice President of Marketing for AFFLINK

Michael Wilson is vice president of marketing for AFFLINK, a global leader in supply chain optimization, providing clients with innovative processes, such as the ELEVATE™ process, as well as procurement solutions to drive efficiencies in today’s leading businesses. He can be reached through his company website at

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