Suppose your teenager sneaks in well after curfew, or someone at work misses an important deadline. The last thing you want to hear are all the reasons why it happened. Those reasons could be perfectly sound or just a bunch of excuses. Really, who cares? As the aggrieved party, all you want to hear is that they know they messed up and won't do it again.
You want to hear the words: "I'm sorry." And it's just as important that they really mean it, too.
The inability to learn that simple lesson is a key reason why so many companies get into hot water, and then make a mess of it as they try to get out.
On August 9, in a filing to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), Air Transat blamed "a confluence of factors beyond our control" for the now infamous tarmac fiasco. To recap, on July 31 two Air Transat flights were diverted from Montreal to Ottawa due to bad weather, and passengers on both flights were stranded on the tarmac for up to six hours in the hot planes.
Some resorted to calling 911 for help. The CTA document is filled with facts — holding patterns, protocols, ability to deplane — and it may be that the company is indeed an innocent victim of a world gone temporarily mad that fateful day in Ottawa.
They most want an acknowledgement that what they went through is wrong, and a sincere apology.
But to a customer (both existing and potential), that's not the issue. The issue is what happened to passengers that day, and the fact that so many of us can relate. These are the customers who paid money to Air Transat, only to end up sitting and fuming on a plane wondering what was going on as the runway crisis unfolded. They do not want facts, protocols and data. They most want an acknowledgement that what they went through is wrong, and a sincere apology. To be clear, Air Transat did briefly apologize on Twitter and issued a statement — although both end, rather than start, with the right words.
Diversions to Ottawa: pic.twitter.com/tSr6BNzhns— Air Transat (@airtransat) August 1, 2017
The back-and-forth with the CTA is a necessary step to ensure something like this doesn't happen again, but it's no ground to stand on when looking to maintain a reputation and trust with consumers.
Air Transat is hardly the only company to find itself in this position. Fellow airline United got it right eventually after it threw a passenger off the plane, but not before some tone-deaf responses. Wells Fargo was slow to apologize last year for the "fake accounts" scandal last year. And so on.
Perhaps ironically, issues that involve customer service are among the easiest to address. Above all, it's about making the people who pay for your product or service know that you're looking out for them, and that you'll do everything possible to make it right — even if you're not totally to blame. It's the tone, the sentiment that counts.
Of course, it's easy to sit in judgement from the comfort and clarity of our living room. In the heat of the moment, people charged with making decisions can get faulty or conflicting information. For them, it's just another incident to be logged, along with countless others. Many executives are also reluctant to convey even a whiff of culpability, which could in theory have legal implications. Others get defensive, and try to fight a war of emotions with cold, hard facts. Much of it is avoidable with an injection of perspective.
In a world awash in apologies from actors, athletes and politicians, businesses remain laggards when it comes to saying those words.
Until they do, we'll continue to get news stories feasting on the aftermath.
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