Customer Service Apologies in IT: Diffusing Difficult Situations

IT organizations serve their end-users in any number of ways -- by managing internal 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 perceptions and conflicts that have no easy answers or solutions.  Sometimes apology may be the only way.  Read on to learn how it's done.

Anyone involved in IT will eventually face the consequences of ineffective support encounters, 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.

Where do "apology skills" come in to play?  Whenever interactions with end-users occur and things have not gone they way they should.  This can happen in any service encounter, in any project, and certainly as part of any problem management situation.  The ultimate goal is to diffuse negative situations, solve pending problems and take steps to prevent reoccurence.  (Also Read:  Maintaining Positive Perceptions During Service Outages and Interruptions)

Service Apology Tips and Techniques

1. Start with a show of respect to diffuse difficult situations.

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.  This may be all that it takes to diffuse the situation, but, it's also possible that you may need to explain further (as detailed below).  

2.  Explain your side, but don't get defensive or make excuses.

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.  Here's what you can say:

 "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.  Don't get caught up in a "blame game" - focus on resolutions and moving forward.

In difficult situations, it's best to steer the discussion away from blame, and towards resolution. This changes the focus and establishes a common purpose for all parties involved.  Here's what you can say:

"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.  Make sure IT staffers know when and how to escalate problems for assistance and support.

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 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".   Here's what they can say:

"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).

At the end of the day, the key to defusing difficult service encounters is to combine expressed empathy and responsive action. Empathy allows for recognition of the end-user perspective, and action allows you to move forward to resolve service deficiencies. Above all, all such encounters should be treated as "lessons learned" to be incorporated into the IT/end-user partnership and related service portfolio (all as part of managing according to a strategic IT vision).

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