Miss Charming and the Role of the Business Apology

I did a lot of flying over Diwali or rather Kali Pujo. And that of course is a great opportunity to study people, enjoy some interesting food, and be on the receiving end of strange customer experience design glitches. Businesses now seem keen on apologizing profusely, to avoid social media backlash. But should they? For example, if the delay is caused due to circumstances not in their control, say, a runway closure or poor visibility, should the pilot keep apologizing? We all now it is ineffectual and it doesn’t make us feel any better. On the other hand, if they lose your luggage, or ignore your meal option, that’s in their control and they should apologize. So the distinction is apologize for things that are in your control.

But what about preventing future glitches? On my recent flight I had booked first row premium seats for me and my minor daughter. It was not an exit row but the ground staff insisted we had to move to Row 3. Imagine our surprise when on boarding we find a kid sitting in the first row! Complaints to the air crew did not work despite our erstwhile seats still being empty. A Twitter complaint got me a – you guessed it! – a profuse apology and a partial refund. But no explanation as to the process change required to avoid a repeat. Without this, despite the apology and refund, my child and I remain miffed and wary about this ‘premium’ option.

Now, lest you wonder whether I am calling myself Miss Charming, let me introduce you to her. She is Sabee Chin who won Malaysia’s Miss Charming title in 2017. Recently on being prevented from using the toilet because the Air Asia plane was about to land, she made a video with the intent of going viral and shaming the airline. She went viral but unexpectedly the reaction from most people was that the Air Asia folks were just doing their job and that she was at fault. In this case the airline standing their ground and not apologizing for something not in their control worked in their favour.

I recently faced an issue of not getting a wheelchair organized at short notice for an elderly relative. Luckily I was told to tweet to Bangalore Airport who were very proactive in arranging one. The problem apparently is that airlines allocate a wheelchair to an individual for a fixed period of time, rather than use it as a shuttle service to the gate. So the airline apologies are not meaningful without a change in operational process.

It’s human to expect contrition, but it makes sense only when (a) the mistake was deliberate (b) it could have been avoided (c) it can be prevented in the future.  What’s your view?  Does your organization have a policy on when to apologize?

Next week, on Tuesday at 3pm IST I’m going to be moderating a panel hosted by ET Edge on Delivering Exceptional Customer Experiences, what leaders do differently. My expert panel has Garima Pant, Customer Experience, Head, Junglee, Ranajit Hajra, EVP, Customer Support Group, Tejas Network, Sahil Deswal, Head – Growth & Marketing, The Times of India, Times Internet, K T Prasad, Country Sales Director, Zendesk. Amongst other things we will talk about the correlation between quality and customer experience. Do join if you can!

I’d also like to introduce you to a fantastic new podcast series – Dreamers and Unicorns – by the super interesting Abhijit Bhaduri. You can check it out here. As per Abhijit, we have seen three phases of working. Phase 1 was all about getting a job. As employers and employment became more fluid, it gave rise to entrepreneurs, which is Phase 2. In the more recent times, gig work has started to grow especially in India. Millennials and GenZ prefer the flexibility that freelancing allows. The Dreamers and Unicorns who are now fast becoming our role models are all those who have embraced the new code of work. They have followed their passion and leveraged technology to adapt their careers to the new realities. These are the new role-models we need to follow – the Dreamers and Unicorns.

On November 14th I’m going to be at LEADING EDGE 2019 which has the amazing theme “Never Waste a Slowdown”. Yes, I’m sure some of you are going “Slowdown? What slowdown?” For the rest, this program sounds exciting 🙂 Ping me if you’re there!

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