Author of 17 books, inductee into the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame, and all-around customer experience guru, Godin’s foresight for what customers want out of digital is unparalleled. His internationally-acclaimed blog is a must-follow for anyone focused on putting customers at the heart of their mobile experience.
Civilization depends on the apology. When humans interact and something goes wrong, the apology builds a bridge that enables us to move forward.
But apologies are failing more often. Two reasons: First, organizations aren’t humans, and organizations often seek to avoid or industrialize the human work that civilization needs. And secondly, the apology is a complex organism, one with many structures and purposes, and our culture models (or fails to model) how it’s supposed to be done.
Consider that we can say, “I’m sorry” at a funeral even if we didn’t murder the deceased, but we also say, “I’m sorry” when we bump into someone in a crowded train station and “I’m sorry” when we get caught shoplifting. Three different situations, with fundamentally different amounts of complicity, blame or guilt.
When someone accidentally bumps into us, we don’t expect compensation or punishment, but we very much want to be acknowledged. On the other hand, acknowledgment is insufficient when someone sought to profit from our pain.
We can start by asking, “what is this apology for?” What does the person need from us?
To be seen
Punishment for the transgressor
Stopping the damage
The first category is the one that most demands humanity, and it’s also the most common. A form letter from a company does not make us feel seen. Neither does an automated text from an airline when a plane is late. One reason that malpractice victims sue is that surgeons sometimes have trouble with a genuine apology. This non-human behavior is getting worse and is being celebrated in parts of our culture (mistaking it for strength), which leads to a demand for the other three.
Compensation is the ancient tradition of seeking to make a victim whole. Unless the injury is solely financial, financial compensation is insufficient, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t tried to build systems that use money to atone for ills.
Punishment is different from compensation. Punishment allows the victim to feel seen, because he or she is now aware that the transgressor feels some pain as well. (Punishment is unsatisfying to the victim if he or she is unaware of it). Punishment is economically suspect, though, because other than the second-order feeling of being seen, the punishment doesn’t directly help the person who was injured. It also can spiral forward, leading to ever more damage.
And finally, stopping the damage, which often co-exists with the other three needs. This is the affirmative act of making sure it doesn’t happen again. This is correcting the website so that the next person who reads it won’t see the same error. This is fixing the railing so the next visitor won’t trip and fall. This is the organization investing time and energy to actually improve its systems.
Compounding these totally different sorts of apologies is the very industrial idea of winning. Victims have been sold that it’s not enough that your compensation is merely helpful, but it has to be the most. That you won the biggest judgment in history. That the transgressor isn’t simply going to jail, but is going to jail forever, far away, in solitary confinement. We’ve all ended up in a place where one of the ways to feel seen is to also feel like you came in first place compared to others.
There’s an old cartoon–an irate customer is standing at the complaints desk of a store, clearly not mollified by the clerk. She then asks, exasperated, “well, what if we shut down the store, burn it to the ground and run the owner out of town… will that be enough?”
The challenge that organizations have is that they haven’t trained, rewarded or permitted their frontline employees to exert emotional labor to create human connection when it’s most needed.
The traveler goes straight from, “my flight is overbooked,” to “I want a million frequent flyer miles and a first class ticket on the next flight.”
The patient goes from, “the scar on my leg isn’t healing,” to “I’m going to sue you.”
And the most common unseen situation is the customer who walks away, forever, because you have a broken system and you’re not hearing from your people about how to fix it.
Organizations that refuse to see the pain they’re causing because they’re afraid of being held responsible have missed the point. You’re already being held responsible. The question is what to do about it? You can stonewall, bureaucratize and delay, and hope that the system will suffice…
The alternative is to choose to contribute to connection by actually apologizing. Apologizing not to make the person go away, but because they have feelings, and you can do something for them. Apologizing with time and direct contact, and following it up by actually changing the defective systems that caused the problem.
“Yikes, I’m sorry you missed your flight–I really wish that hadn’t happened. The next flight is in an hour, but that’s probably going to ruin your entire trip. Are you headed on vacation?”
“You’re right, you booked a front-facing seat, but you got one that’s facing backward–and I hear you about getting motion sickness, my sister does too… I know that Amtrak has been having trouble with our systems, but I have the hotline number of the head of ops–I’m going to call and let them know.”
“Yeah, I shouldn’t have written that review. I was in a bad mood when I wrote it. I apologize. But, to set the record straight, I’m going to delete that review and write a new one, just as loud, but this time telling people about how much you care.”
Consider that an effective apology has a few elements to it:
1. You know what sort of apology you’re offering.
2. You share your story with the aggrieved as well as hearing their story, thus becoming human, and then taking the time to help them feel seen by you.
3. You engage with the person who was harmed and find out, beyond being seen, what would help them move forward, noting that it’s impossible to make complete amends.
[It’s worth noting that these are not the same steps you’d take if you’re simply hoping the person will shut up and go away, without you seeing them. That’s not going to happen, and acting as if it will, will only make your problem worse.]
With enough top-down energy, it feels like the creator of an idea can broadcast it, anytime and anywhere. That enough hype/promo/media/leverage ought to allow a major publisher or network or candidate to bend the culture simply by yelling.
If you follow this road, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
For 500 years, this hasn’t been true for books. And now it’s not true for anything.
Ideas spread from person to person. Horizontally. Because someone who encountered an idea cared enough to spread the word, to talk about it, to insist that friends and colleagues pay attention, if just for a moment.
If you can figure out how to embrace the true fans, they’ll go ahead and spread an idea–not because you want them to, but because they want to.
Your ability to reach a tiny group of committed fans is essential. But the work spreads because of the fans, not because you figured out how to spend money to interrupt more and more strangers.
We have so many forms of “this will only take a minute” inputs.
We have Slack, which is optimized for, “yep, I saw that.”
We have email, which is optimized for, “I cleared my inbox” or possibly, “I’ll do this later.”
We have Twitter, which is optimized for wasting time.
And we have Facebook, which in only a few minutes, can make you feel left out.
But we don’t have a convention for important inputs that might take hours of work to respond to.
We don’t have a pre-sorted inbox for, “I’m ready to think deeply and work hard and change my posture and truly engage with this idea now.”
This is one of the best things about a good non-fiction book. It’s not for wasting time, it’s for depth when you’re ready to go deep.
If you spend your whole day browsing, then what happens?
[Typo update: There are typos on this blog now and then, and I apologize for all of them, the past ones and the ones yet to come. I usually fix them within an hour of publication, so if you’re ever wondering–yes, Bo Diddley was 1955, not 1995–just click on the title of the post and you’ll see the latest version, here, on the blog itself, almost certainly corrected. Thanks for your forbearance and patience.]
There’s the forever of discomfort. Sasha Dichter taught us about this. The feeling we get during a temporary situation that feels like it’s going to last forever.
It’s one thing to tolerate a bumpy landing on an airplane, because you know it’ll be over in ten seconds.
But, a car-sick toddler doesn’t have that perspective. He’s wailing and sad because he thinks that this is the new normal, a permanent situation.
Too often, we quit in the dip. Not because we can’t tolerate discomfort for an hour, a week or a month, but because we mistakenly believe that it might last forever.
There’s the forever of plenty. This is when we erroneously assume that the stuff that’s good is going to stay good. That this moment, this leverage, these resources–we can squander them because they’ll be here tomorrow.
This sort of forever leads to heartbreak, because, inevitably, it doesn’t last. It can’t.
And there’s the forever of never. The dominant narrative of society is that you’re stuck with what you’ve got. Stuck in your status role, stuck in your skill set, stuck in your situation.
If you believe it, it’s probably true.
If you believe it, you just let yourself off the hook, which is comforting indeed.
And if you believe it, you’ve made life easier for the systems that would like to pigeonhole you.
But, even though it’s certainly harder than it ought to be, it doesn’t have to be forever.
[PS today’s the Early Decision deadline for the altMBA. The word continues to spread, person to person, with more than 3,300 alumni in 74 countries.]
A truth is a useful, reliable statement of how the world is. You can ignore it, but it will cost you, because the world won’t work the way you hope it will. You can dislike the truth, but pretending it isn’t true isn’t an effective way to accomplish your goals or to further our culture.
Most of the kinds of truth we experience are about the past and the present, and these are the easiest to see and confirm, but there are also truths about cause and effect.
Identity is the truth of description. A circle is round because we define a circle as round. You can say, “a circle is rectangular in shape,” and all you’ve done is confused us. Words only work because we agree on what they mean.
Demagogues often play with the identity of words, as it distracts us.
Axiomatic truth is truth about the system. The Peano axioms, for example, define the rules of arithmetic. They are demonstrably true and the system is based on these truths. Einstein derived his theories of special and general relativity with a pad of paper, not with an experiment (though the experiments that followed have demonstrated that his assertions were in fact true.)
There were loud voices in mid-century Germany who said that Einstein’s work couldn’t be true because of his heritage, and many others who mis-described his work and then decried that version of it, but neither approach changed the ultimate truth of his argument.
Axiomatic truth, like most other truths, doesn’t care whether you understand it or believe it or not. It’s still true.
Historic truth is an event that actually happened. We know it happened because it left behind evidence, witnesses and other proof.
Experimental truth may not have the clear conceptual underpinnings of axiomatic truth, but it holds up to scrutiny. The world is millions of years old. Every experiment consistently demonstrates this. Experimental truth can also give us a road map to the future. Vaccines do not cause autism. The world is not flat. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising.
If you want to challenge an experimental truth, the only response is to do a better experiment, make it replicable and show your work.
Personal experience truth is the truth that’s up to you. How you reacted to what happened can only be seen and reported by you.
And finally, consider cultural truth, and this is the truth that can change. This is the truth of, “people like us do things like this.” Which is true, until it’s not. And then people like us do something else.