How to Offer Service Apologies
IT organizations serve their end-users in any number of ways ...by managing systems, providing technical support, delivering projects, or providing internal consulting. While we would all hope that systems never fail, purchase orders are never lost, and projects are never delayed, customer service is sometimes a negative experience... dealing with problems and conflicts that have no easy answers or solutions.
Anyone involved in IT will eventually face the consequences of design failures, miscommunications, unrealistic expectations, or failed policies and procedures. Such situations are sensitive and difficult to address. But, out of all the sophisticated management techniques available, a simple apology may sometimes prove to be the best answer.
It is never easy to apologize, especially when you feel that the "T" in I.T. stands for target, not technology. But IT managers and their staff need to hold onto one basic concept ... an apology does not necessarily imply acceptance of fault or blame. It can simply be an expression of empathy and understanding.
Here are a few tips for handling customer service apologies:
1. An apology is a show of respect and a means of diffusing a tense situation. For those times when you know that no one will agree, a simple "I understand how you feel and I am sorry for all the disruption..." can change the course of a conversation otherwise headed for disaster.
2. While the sources and causes of systems failures and project delays may be complex, and worthy of explanation, there are times when that explanation will be perceived as just another excuse. If the other party is not ready for an explanation, you may end up looking defensive (and guilty) if you persist in offering one. An apology can buy time and allow calmer heads to prevail. Consider the following approach ..... "I understand how you feel, and I am sorry for the disruption. This is a complicated situation, let me put my thoughts together in writing, and then we can get together and discuss it..." (and be sure you do).
3. In difficult situations, steer the discussion away from blame, and towards resolution. This can be accomplished with the following approach ... "I understand how you feel, and I am sorry for the disruption. I need to look into how this happened, but for right now, my major concern is getting this problem resolved as quickly as possible. For now, let's focus on that...." .
4. Instruct IT staff to recognize the need for escalation. Sometimes an apology has the most impact when it comes from a department manager. After all, that is a manager's job...to handle politically sensitive situations, thus allowing staff members to focus on their work, with minimum stress and interference. Sensing a difficult situation, staff members should not wait for the inevitable "let me speak to your supervisor". Instead, they should offer the following... "I understand how you feel, and I am sorry for the disruption. I know you need better answers than I can give you right now. I am going to escalate this situation to my manager, and he/she will get in touch with you right away..." (of course, this actually needs to happen, or all future credibility will be lost).