Whoops!! Why saying sorry to customers is not always enough


It is impossible to get everything right 100% of the time – that is a fact. As a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt (yes that is a genuine ‘qualification’), I learned a long time ago that perfection is rarely 100%. Just to dwell on this point for a second – Six Sigma itself is a measure of perfection. For a process to be ‘Six Sigma’, it would need to be 99.9997% perfect – or said another way, the process would only go wrong 3.4 times out of every million opportunities. Pretty geeky eh? The reason I am telling you this is that every organisation will get things wrong – even if it is only 3.4 times out of a million. What every organisation needs to strive to do is to get things wrong less often, or right more often!

So, that being the case, is it acceptable for organisations to get things wrong? I find this an interesting question. So what is the answer? Potentially there could be many. Before I give you my opinion, let us explore the following concept:

“Brilliant Basics and Magic Moments”

All customer experiences are a journey, with definable start and end points. Each journey has a number of ‘stages’ with ‘touch points’ that connect the stages together. Some of these touch points are purely functional things – they need to be there to enable the journey to be complete. For example, in an online shopping experience, selecting the item you want (that is displayed as available), and putting it in your basket, is a pretty functional touch point. It is an example of what I term ‘the basics’ of being an online shop. Customers expect ‘the basics’ to be right. Most customers would hope that ‘the basics’ will be right 100% of the time. However, we now know that 100% is a rare occurrence – should you put an available item in your basket, only to be told it is ‘out of stock’ at checkout, that is an infuriating experience – and one that does occur.

A ‘Magic Moment’, on the other hand, is where the journey ‘goes above and beyond’ customer expectation. It is an experience within the journey that is so good, that it positively remains in the memory of the customer. When Amazon launched their 1-click checkout capability, that was a truly magic moment. It has now become the status quo for Amazon, but few other online retailers have been able to emulate it.

It is important for any organisation to have magic moments in their journey – it is these moments that will lead to customers returning to you, as well as recommending you to others. However, it can and should be argued that getting ‘the basics’ right, as often as you possibly can, should be even more important. There is no point having the whizziest, jazziest website on the planet, if you have no stock available.

Let’s have a look at another example. Most of us possess credit or store cards. Love them or hate them, they are useful, and often necessary things in the modern world. One of ‘the basic’ things that any credit or store card provider should be able to do on a monthly basis is send you a statement, detailing your transactions. Whether it is in an electronic format, or old fashioned paper, this is a standard expectation of any customer who uses one. When the statement arrives, although we may often not be happy with the amount of money we have spent (we only have ourselves to blame), we do expect the statement to be accurate. Credit card statements are no different to products and their availability on retail websites – they are unfortunately not right 100% of the time. Sometimes ‘rogue’ transactions appear. Sometimes we are faced with charges that we do not understand. These are irritations, but not necessarily significant enough to permanently damage our customer experience.

A couple of weeks ago, my lovely wife, Naomi, received a statement from a financial services company that manages the store card of a high street retailer. I will not name either, as it is not relevant who it is. The envelope arrived with two pieces of paper inside – the first with some account information on it – related to Christmas payment dates. The second sheet of paper was a bit of an issue – it was the statement of another customer – the name and address of the customer was clearly printed at the top of the page, as was the account number and recent transactions. Receiving the statement of another customer is an example of not getting ‘the basics’ right. It is actually downright shocking. To make matters worse, having contacted the financial services company to advise them of the mistake, Naomi was advised that the problem was on a wide scale. Due to a system error, most customers had received the wrong statement!! This means that another customer is likely to have received Naomi’s statement, with our address and account number emblazoned across the top.

To give the financial services company credit, they acted very quickly. A letter arrived the following day, acknowledging the error. The company apologised, confirming the immediate cancellation of all cards across the estate, and advising of the re-issue of new cards and account numbers. The cost of the error will have been astronomical. But what is the potentially greater cost to the financial services company of failing to get ‘the basics’ right? How many customers will have closed their accounts permanently as a result of the experience? How can the company be trusted again? This was a huge ‘whoops’ situation – but is saying sorry enough to recover the customer experience?

Getting ‘the basics’ right should be the priority for any organisation. ‘How capable are we of doing what our customers want us to do’, should be the minimum level of understanding by any management team. How often do we get it right, and where do we need to improve? If you are a long way from 99.9997%, you need to get much closer to it before you start worrying about ‘magic moments’. Failing to focus on ‘the basics’ is likely to lead to you saying sorry to customers more often than you, or they, would like. Saying sorry is often not good enough when you fail to do the most basic of things. Getting things wrong is often accepted by customers – getting the basics wrong is often not.

So as we move in to a new calendar year, ask the question of your organisation – do you know how capable it is of doing what customers expect it to do? If you cannot answer the question – find out before it is too late.

As always, your comments are very welcome.

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