Not too long ago I was really, really mad at Southwest Airlines and I must tell you why, but I am really, really sorry if this bores you.

Patti and I were flying home on Southwest Airlines from Orlando with a connecting flight in Baltimore. The plane in Orlando had mechanical problems and we got started 90 minutes late. (When planning we knew connecting flights were problematic so we allowed over two hours for the connection.)

On our flight from Orlando there were about 20 passengers who were trying to make the same connecting flight in Baltimore to Boston. We all knew if we walked fast in the terminal we could all make the connection with 10 minutes to spare. Furthermore, knowing all this, the pilot or co-pilot communicated our dilemma with people at the gate.

When we got off the plane we hustled to the gate of our connecting flight and arrived with over 10 minutes to spare. With a boarding pass in hand

Photo by Andy Beales on Unsplash

I walked-up to the gate and got behind another boarding passenger. But when my pass was scanned it was rejected. With a very somber face the Southwest representative told me to go back and check-in at the counter. At the counter the Southwest person said, “I’m sorry, but because you were late arriving we had to give your seat to someone else.”

“I’m sorry we gave your seat to another customer because you were late arriving?” Really?

The Southwest person found a much later flight that took us home. (Thank goodness Patti was with me because I had to go for a walk to calm down and she so nicely made the arrangements. Patience is not one of my virtues, Dear Reader.)

But as I walked around I felt bad for the people at the counter because they were having to deal with the angry customers impacted by a policy or procedure the Southwest system required of them.

I’m Sorry is Not Enough. In a Harvard Business Review article “Sorry” is Not Enough I learned about new research about to be published on how our front-line team members apologize too much and provide too little actual solutions, which frustrates customers.

The research was led by Jagdip Singh and is based on 111 videos of airline reps trying to solve customer problems and then 568 passenger interviews related to these problems. Here are five things I learned from the article:

  1. Front-line team members usually engage in two types of customer-related work: “relational work”, which includes empathetic, apologetic, or connecting behaviors; and “problem-solving work”, which focuses on getting solutions. Most of us are naturally inclined to one or the other of these behaviors. And when we hire people who naturally do well with “relational work” we MUST train them to do “problem-solving work” for them to be successful.
  2. An apology that extends past the first few sentences of a customer interaction actually reduces the customer’s satisfaction.
  3. If your team member only projects warmth and friendliness, the customer perceives s/he as less competent.
  4. After the opening apology, team members who energetically brainstorm solutions with the customer are viewed as much more competent and the customer’s perception of your business is much higher.
  5. The hard part of delivering service is that each customer is unique, and solutions require a type of improvisation. The researcher Singh says that team members need to “Just get into the task and generate interesting options for the customer – that makes all the difference.”

In the published article the writers interview Bob Easton, a senior executive with Accenture. Easton talks about how much he has learned from the research. Here are a few of his takeaways:

  • Remove “I’m sorry” from your vocabulary. Instead say something like, “I acknowledge the problem and I’m sure you want me to find some options to solve it.” Then think out loud some of the options, you might hear that one of them resonates with the customer.
  • The research showed that customer satisfaction was linked directly to the effort the company’s representative put into finding a solution, not the solution itself. Easton told the story of his unfortunate travel experience in Asia and how one rep’s efforts made him feel good about that company even though the result was lesser than another experience with a far less committed representative. (Interesting point, I think.)
  • Leaders need to make sure a customer’s personal information is easily available to the front-line team member, so they can more easily “connect” with the customer. Easton used an example of another time when he flew that the travel rep knew exactly how his trip had progressed. The rep knew about delays and other facts so s/he could try to address his frustration when it emerged.

There is a great question to be asked here – How well do our front-line team members know how to engage in real problem-solving interactions?

If we do not know the answer, I bet our customers will hear a sympathetic “I’m sorry” too many times and that is no solution at all.