Do you have a “Chief Apology Officer”?

Let’s face it. If you’re in business, there’s going to be at least some problems. That’s business. So what do you do when things go wrong?

Southwest Airlines has what has been dubbed as a “Chief Apology Officer”. In reality he is Fred Taylor, Senior Manager of Proactive Customer Service Communications. (Listen to a podcast interview with Fred here). In his job, he “deals with customers on days when travel plans go awry.”

When I first heard of the Chief Apology Officer I was worried. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the concept but I was worried that since this position would be dealing with “the problems” day in and day out that it may turn into a what-button-can-I-push-to-make-this-customer-go-away sort of attitude followed by a mechanical and hollow apology. However, Southwest Airlines seems to get it right. They respond quickly, they correct the situation and they make sure that the entire organization has the needed information and what is expected of them.

What are your thoughts of having a Chief Apology Officer? How might you offer apologies as part of your job without sounding mechanical or insincere?

Bonus: If you feel that having your own Chief Apology Officer would be beneficial (or if that responsibility rests on your shoulders) be sure to checkout the 10 steps for crisis communication.

Happy Wednesday!

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4 Responses

  1. I read your post with interest, mainly due to the fact that although I am not called the Chief Apology Officer here at Customer Street I do pretty much a similar job.

    We are an online business directory for SME’s (small to medium enterprises) and at the time of my appointment in November last year the reputation we had built up around our UFindUs directory was not the sort of image we wanted to portray.

    I was taken off the credit control department and was offered the opportunity to make a difference. Our technical director set a department up for me to head up, the Accountability Department. The reason for my appointment was I had been singled out as being someone who cared for the customer (probably a bit too much sometimes – but hey, that’s me!)

    My role was not just to apologise, of which I did a fair amount in the early days, but to root out the critics, and the competition who were intent on stirring things up and confront them head on. Previously we had always buried our head in the sand in the hope it would all go away.

    It didn’t go away straight away, but our internal systems have improved no end over the last 9 months, we have worked hard to not only turn around our reputation but ensure the same mistakes will not be repeated again. I have also addressed our critics and they seem less inclined to be quite as critical when they know someone is actually listening and is prepared to respond.

    We want our customers to get to know us better, to know what makes us tick ,and, for us to learn from them more about what they want from us. So far the we have learnt a lot.

    I don’t think we would have had the success we have had so far if it was a case of paying lip service. All the management care passionately about making all our Customer Street brands a success, and we can only do that at the end of the of the day if we have happy customers who continue their subscriptions after the first year.

    It’s a great challenge, and it’s a great job. I can thoroughly recommend my job to anyone who wants to make a difference, and to any company who may have been a bit misguided in handling customers in the past but who now want to get back on track again.

  2. customerstreet,

    Congrats on your position. It sounds like you are really making a difference. For the benefit of anyone that may be called into this position, I have a couple of questions for you:

    1. How did you offer apologies as part of your job without sounding mechanical or insincere?
    2. What are three quick tips for success that you can offer to anyone in your role?

  3. The main thing is to try not to be too corporate in how you deal with things. It was a mistake I made to start with, probably because I wanted so much to make a difference. I was trained in an office, many years ago, where tradition was ingrained in everyday practices and everything was always “just so”. The world is a lot less formal now and as the months have gone by I have developed my own style which has become much more natural and relaxed.

    As a company that has never openly responded to such very visible criticism before when you do start to respond you really do have to begin by making postings which really are nothing more than holding your hands up and saying “sorry“. You certainly shouldn’t be afraid to apologise, people love to shout especially when they don’t think you will respond but when you do after a while the complaints will slow down.

    It’s at this point that you find the nature of the complaints start to alter as well. The fact you are responding to complaints means that people are more inclined to be truthful and less likely to embellish their stories. This also helps to root out those people who have never even had any dealings with your company but jump on the bandwagon making ridiculous claims or comments. We have even come across our competitors making false claims about us, strange how they fade away when challenged.

    Once the complaints have slowed, you can then start to be more forceful in your responses, the time for making apologies (there will always be the odd exception) is generally over. You need to start to get a positive message out there that you have changed by making your dealings more transparent.

    Keep your customer informed about what is going on. The changes that have been made behind the scenes are so important in moving forward, its no good being all mouth and no action, customers will expect to see results, they need to see some real evidence of change if you want your comments to have credibility.

    Remember to try to listen to what’s said and learn. Things wont change overnight. I have been doing my job for over 9 months now and I am still learning. One thing that I have done is set up others within the company on blogs as well. We ideally are looking to try to remove the old irrelevant postings off the front pages of the search engines and replace them with postings that promote positive, and relevant information to reinforce the changes that we have been telling people we have made.

    Remember that some people will never believe anything you write, others will listen, and then you will get those who do believe and are prepared to testify on your behalf. If someone has written a bad comment about you somewhere, sort the problem out and then ask them to tell the world that you have sorted it.

    If you have the drive commitment and support from colleagues in your company then anything is possible. Just remember don’t get personal, be professional and things will alter but it is a slow process. If anyone wants to read mine, or any of the other company blogs we have then you can reach them through my blog, http://www.customerstreet.wordpress.com.

  4. customerstreet,

    Very practical advice! Thank you for taking the time to add to the conversation.

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