I am sorry does not cut it any more

A couple of months ago, an insurance company suddenly stopped automatically deducting money from my checking account. I called immediately to find out what was up.

They informed me that I had overpaid during the prior year, that I would pay no premium in January or February, would pay only $40 in March, and start paying at a new lower rate of $180 per month (26% lower) starting in April to adjust for my over payment the prior year. I thought this was terrific; I was really happy to hear this, particularly coming from an insurance company.

In late March, I went to my on-line banking system to confirm the $40 had been deducted from my account as I expected. You can imagine my horror when I learned that $440, not $40, had been taken from my account.

When I called to find out what was going on, I was informed that "the company had made a mistake, that my premium was going up, and that the new rate was actually higher than the old rate." Wow! I was, in a word, furious.

I told the agent that I had never been notified. She looked at my record and confirmed that I, indeed, had never been notified. When I asked why, she said, "I don’t know. I’m sorry."

I asked if I cancelled the policy on the spot if they would refund my money immediately. The answer: "Refunds take 30 days."

"So, let’s see if I got this right," I said to the agent:

- You can make a rate change without notifying me

- You can take money out of my bank account in an instant

- If I don’t like the way you conduct your business, it takes me 30 days to get a refund?

She confirmed again, that "I was right" and "I’m sorry." I’m sorry doesn’t show any sense of responsibility or accountability—used in this context it simply means "whoopsi!" I didn’t escalate this issue—I just didn’t have the time that week.

Earlier this week, I tried to make a lease payment to a well-known, Fortune 50 company. On Monday, I tried to make the payment and the system wouldn’t accept it—the same was true on Tuesday and Wednesday. So, I called the company to make my payment as their system was still down.

Let’s just say it was an incredibly frustrating experience. At one point, the agent "graciously" offered to waive a $14 fee to accept my payment in person. I laughed out loud. How preposterous to even mention such a thing after the manner in which I’d already been inconvenienced. There were many other things that went wrong with this transaction that I’m not going to discuss now.

I escalated the matter within the company. I wrote probably 500 words detailing everything that had happened during my attempt to make my normal payment. A 2-3 minute monthly occurrence took me over 30 minutes.

An individual from the company did contact me to apologize for what happened, gave me her contact information, and suggested that if I had problems in the future, I should contact her for assistance. Here was my response:

While I appreciate the apology, I'd really like to hear that someone is going to carefully scrutinize and understand all the information that I have provided so I can be assured that corrective actions will be taken. 

Your company is getting much better at apologizing.  As the Dalai Lama says, "When you lose, don't lose the lesson."  There are a lot of lessons to be learned in the email forwarded to you.  Those lessons are only valuable if they help you provide a better customer experience.

Your customers want and expect a lot more from you than what was evidenced in this specific transaction.  This is true for all customer touch points within your company.

I'd rather know that my feedback is going to make a profound difference in the customer experience your company offers me than to know you are the "go to" person the next time I experience any difficulties.  I want as seamless an experience as is possible.

"I’m sorry" sounds so hollow, so ubiquitous, and so incredibly easy to say that I am growing weary of hearing it. Companies need to put some action behind their business execution challenges.

If your process breaks down and a customer has an experience that is less than what they deserve, tell us what you are going to do to make sure no other customer is inconvenienced in the same way. Let dissatisfied customers know that you are going to do something to create a better experience for them and all others who touch that process.

That’s what we want and what we need to hear.

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Dave Gardner is a management consultant, speaker and blogger who resides in Silicon Valley. His firm helps clients eliminate business execution issues that threaten profitable and sustainable growth. He can be reached through his website at www.gardnerandassoc.com

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  • Loraine Antrim

    The main message that companies need to send to dissatisfied customers is a simple one: "we care." The main way you can demonstrate that caring is to fix what is broken and make sure the customer has a repeatable positive experience I agree with you Dave, that the process needs to be fixed, but I'm not sure that all customers care about the process; they care about themselves and their experience. The order of concern is me, me, me. Process is an afterthought for the customer; however, it should be top of mind for the company to ensure the customer experience can continue to be a positive one. I very much appreciated your post and your insights. Loraine Antrim, Core Ideas Communication