Elton John once famously sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”
However, according to some recent CallMiner data, “Sorry” doesn’t seem to be a hard word at all when it comes to customer service.
Their data shows that of the firms that use sorry the most frequently in their customer interactions, nine of the top fifteen are Business Process Outsourcers (BPOs), the organizations that many brands outsource their customer service and support operations to.
When working with a BPO, a brand may stipulate that they want to deliver an empathetic experience. But, when this is hard-coded into a contractual agreement and set of operating procedures, it can get reduced down to a simple equation where saying sorry at certain places, in certain situations and at certain times shows that you are displaying empathy.
For example, many BPOs will require their agents to say sorry if a customer has been on hold for longer than a certain amount of time, while others will say sorry at the end of a hold period no matter the length.
This is understandable from a contractual perspective, as it can help measure performance against the contract terms. But, in practice, it can mean that sorry gets used a lot and often too much.
I am sure we can all relate to that. Who doesn’t feel their temperature rising when waiting in a phone queue and an automated message tells you, “We’re sorry to keep you waiting. Your call is important to us.” Or when an agent eventually answers your call and says, “Sorry to have kept you waiting.”
Nine times out of ten, you probably think they don’t mean it and are just saying sorry because they have been told to do so.
And, in many cases, you’d be right.
This results in the delivery of what Rick Britt, VP of AI at CallMiner calls “Empty Empathy.”
But, if you dig into CallMiner’s data and look at the other end of the spectrum at the companies that use sorry the least frequently in their customer interactions, you’d not find a bunch of grouchy and mean companies. Somewhat surprisingly, you’d find that three of the five lowest frequency users of the word sorry in customer interactions are companies in the holiday and travel spaces. This is doubly surprising given the year that many of these companies have just gone through.
Britt was surprised by this data too and went to find out more, given that he knew these companies and considered them to be both good and empathetic. He found that these companies, rather than spraying out lots of sorries at every juncture and getting mired in empty empathy, are changing the language that they use to apologize when they need to. Combined with allowing their people to really own their customers’ problems, it is helping them differentiate the experience they are delivering.
So, it seems, when it comes to customer service, Elton John was wrong. Sorry is not hard to say. In fact, sorry is often too easy to say, and because it is used so much, it ends up becoming meaningless and feeling insincere.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t apologize if something goes wrong or if a customer has to wait to be attended to or to be heard. But, if brands don’t want to be known for having empty empathy they really need to think about how they apologize, when they apologize and what words they use to apologize to make sure that any apology they make is meant, heard and felt.
This post was originally published on Forbes here.