Nobody ever apologizes.

I don’t know why this exemplar of good manners has vanished. Perhaps the self-esteem movement decided it damages one’s sense of self-worth. Or maybe some staff attorney decided it admits guilt and is too risky to utter.

Or maybe nobody ever told customer service representatives the first words they should utter (once customers outlast the automated, “Your call is important to us,” lie to present a complaint) should be, “I’m sorry you’ve had a problem. How can I help you?”

A real-world example, directly relevant to your job: A correspondent called her bank’s interactive voice response (IVR) system to check her balance. Pressing a few dozen buttons revealed that her account balance was precisely zilch. A few more buttons and she heard about a large transaction, not of her doing, which had cleaned out the account.

The next morning, in one of those Burns-and-Allen conversations in which each follow-up question elicits an increasingly peculiar response, she heard:

  • A recent merger caused some account numbers, including hers, to duplicate those of some of the other bank’s customers. Everyone affected was assigned new account numbers (and accounts).
  • No, I can’t tell you your current balance. If I had your date of birth on file I could, but that didn’t survive the conversion so I can’t.”
  • “Your automatic payments? We notified all of the companies. Some will accept the change; others won’t. [How will I know?] “You’ll just have to work through that.”
  • “Your new account number? No, we can’t give that out over the telephone. It should be on your new checks, though.” [What new checks?] “You didn’t order new checks? This was covered in the letter we sent… Oh, I guess that wouldn’t have helped: We only sent them a week before the change, so you wouldn’t have had time to do anything.”
  • “You never received the letter?” [No.] “No, I can’t send you a copy.” [Who can?] “I don’t know.”

And on and on. What she never heard was, “We’re sorry for the inconvenience.”

Why is this more to you than just an amusing anecdote?

Think how much of the above disaster either originated in or could have been ameliorated by IS. New account numbers could have been assigned months before merging the systems, and with a little custom programming, provided through both printed bank statements and a pre-recorded IVR message. Losing the birth date field on a database conversion is an amazing lapse. As far as handling the conversion of automatic bill payments to new account numbers, it doesn’t take much imagination to invent a half-dozen automated procedures that would have made problems rare exceptions.

No, IS doesn’t own the whole episode. But here’s something to ponder:

This conversion might have been good business if only employees had been inconvenienced. Dealing with exceptions manually is sometimes the right decision.

Real, paying customers have, and should have, higher expectations. In an age of e-commerce, your mistakes will, increasingly, drive customers into the arms of your competitors. And in this age of e-commerce, IS will increasingly be held accountable, not just the delivery of working technology, but for final business results.