An earnest ‘My bad’ is good busi­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. E-mail him at chris@el­ CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

Jason Land­man’s state­room on the Car­ni­val Mir­a­cle vi­brated from the mo­ment his ship cast off in Long Beach, Calif., un­til it docked seven days later. “It shook and rat­tled lit­er­ally from start to fin­ish of the cruise,” he says.

When he com­plained about the noise in Cabin 7243, he says a cruise line rep­re­sen­ta­tive of­fered to ei­ther re­lo­cate him “tem­po­rar­ily” to a dif­fer­ent room or to give him earplugs. He couldn’t move be­cause he was next to his el­derly in-laws, who needed his as­sis­tance.

“No fur­ther com­pen­sa­tion was of­fered, and we felt that we were just brushed off,” says Land­man, who works for a ho­tel in Las Ve­gas.

I asked Car­ni­val about Land­man’s cruise. It re­viewed his case and de­cided that as a “good­will ges­ture” it would re­fund 20 per­cent of his cruise fare and of­fer him a 15 per­cent dis­count on a fu­ture sail­ing.

Land­man wants to know: Is that a sin­cere apol­ogy?

It’s a timely ques­tion. Com­pa­nies are con­stantly apol­o­giz­ing to their cus­tomers, but the re­cent news cy­cle has de­liv­ered two high-pro­file mea cul­pas for trav­el­ers. Volk­swa­gen last month said it re­gret­ted rig­ging some emis­sions tests, stat­ing it was “deeply sorry” that it be­trayed the trust of its cus­tomers and the public. United Air­lines’ new chief ex­ec­u­tive, Os­car Munoz, is on a na­tional apol­ogy tour, ad­mit­ting the com­pany hasn’t lived up to cus­tomers’ ex­pec­ta­tions since its 2010 merger with Con­ti­nen­tal Air­lines.

For wronged trav­el­ers, sim­ply hav­ing a com­pany ad­mit to a prob­lem is a good start. But gaug­ing the sin­cer­ity of the apol­ogy is not al­ways so easy.

Although there’s no magic for­mula for de­ter­min­ing whether an apol­ogy is gen­uine, there are in­di­ca­tors of good faith, ex­perts say. They in­clude the right tim­ing, suf­fi­cient re­morse, an of­fer to be trans­par­ent and co­op­er­a­tive, con­crete ac­tions and ap­pro­pri­ate com­pen­sa­tion.

One of the hall­marks of a sin­cere apol­ogy is its prompt­ness. “Are they do­ing it be­cause the clock has run out and they have no choice?” asks DanMcGinn, a rep­u­ta­tion man­age­ment ex­pert based in Ar­ling­ton, Va. “A public apol­ogy, when it ul­ti­mately comes, is of­ten too con­vo­luted to be of any real value. The word­ing is care­fully cal­i­brated to ex­press re­gret, with­out ac­cept­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

An apol­ogy like VW’s, which came soon af­ter the scan­dal hit the news, is more com­pelling than United’s, is­sued via full­page news­pa­per ads years af­ter the painful merger with Con­ti­nen­tal and sub­se­quent low cus­tomer-ser­vice scores. (It’s also more con­vinc­ing than Car­ni­val’s, which came only af­ter a con­sumer ad­vo­cate asked about Cabin 7243.)

For an apol­ogy to be ef­fec­tive, a com­pany must ad­mit its guilt. And that can be dif­fi­cult, ac­cord­ing to Matt Brubaker, a cor­po­rate mes­sag­ing ex­pert with FMG Lead­ing. “In many cases, public apolo­gies are re­ally not apolo­gies at all, but PR state­ments de­signed to min­i­mize risk, elim­i­nate neg­a­tive con­se­quences and save face while sidestep­ping the ac­tual wrong­do­ing or mis­step,” he says.

Another sign the apol­ogy is le­git­i­mate is whether it is ac­com­pa­nied by a sin­cere ex­pres­sion of re­morse, prefer­ably from some­one at a high level, ac­cord­ing to “When Sorry Isn’t Enough” co-au­thor Jen­nifer Thomas, a re­searcher spe­cial­iz­ing in the psy­chol­ogy of cor­po­rate apolo­gies.

“You have to not only ex­press re­gret but also say that you’re sorry for the hurt you’ve caused,” she says.

By that mea­sure, VW and United put a few points on the board. Both apolo­gies came di­rectly from the CEO, even though they were a lit­tle vague about the dam­age they caused their cus­tomers.

Cred­i­ble apolo­gies also have to in­clude a prom­ise to do bet­ter, says Gary Frisch, who has cov­ered the VW apol­ogy for the Bull­dog Re­porter, a pub­li­cre­la­tions trade pub­li­ca­tion.

“A good apol­ogy needs to in­clude the prom­ise of trans­parency — from the of­fer to co­op­er­ate with any in­ves­ti­ga­tion to tak­ing ques­tions from the media and an­swer­ing them as fully as pos­si­ble,” he says. “The minute you say, ‘No com­ment,’ or walk away from the mi­cro­phone with­out a Q&A, you’ve lost the public’s trust.”

The apol­ogy must also be ac­com­pa­nied by ac­tion, like tak­ing Cabin 7243 out of the Mir­a­cle’s in­ven­tory, im­prov­ing air­line ser­vice or even find­ing new lead­er­ship.

“You look at their ac­tions,” says Rasheen Carbin, who han­dles PR for a tech­nol­ogy com­pany in Oak Brook, Ill., “not just their words.”

Carbin says by that stan­dard, VW’s mea culpa, which came from its (now for­mer) CEO, Martin Win­terkorn, was pretty sin­cere, “not be­cause it was es­pe­cially heart­felt but be­cause he lost his job. Noth­ing shows the public that you’re se­ri­ous like some­one get­ting fired.”

Munoz didn’t of­fer a way to con­tact him di­rectly in his news­pa­per ads, in­stead point­ing the public to a generic com­pany Web site. That hasn’t gone over well with some of United’s cus­tomers.

Com­pen­sa­tion is another el­e­ment of a sin­cere apol­ogy — maybe the most dif­fi­cult of all. How do you make things right?

“A busi­ness should of­fer a re­fund, re­place­ment or an ad­di­tional gift item or ser­vice to show their sin­cer­ity,” says Toni Coleman, a McLean, Va., psy­chother­a­pist and re­la­tion­ship ex­pert. “This would truly say, ‘We are sorry, value your opin­ion and busi­ness, and want to serve you again.’ ”

Car­ni­val’s of­fer cer­tainly fits that bill. It’s still un­clear how VW will com­pen­sate its cus­tomers, and United hasn’t of­fered its pas­sen­gers any kind of make-good for the years of dread­ful ser­vice they re­ceived.

And the fi­nal in­gre­di­ent? “Ask­ing for for­give­ness,” says Thomas, the psy­chol­o­gist. That’s of­ten im­plied in cor­po­rate mea cul­pas but rarely ar­tic­u­lated.

No apol­ogy is per­fect, of course. Land­man isn’t turn­ing down Car­ni­val’s money, but he is un­sure whether he’ll ever book another cruise with the line. VW own­ers are stuck with their ve­hi­cles, and United’s cus­tomers are un­likely to de­fect to another air­line, now that most com­pe­ti­tion has been squeezed out of the in­dus­try.

Any­one care to apol­o­gize for that?

The re­cent news cy­cle has de­liv­ered two high­pro­file mea cul­pas for trav­el­ers, from Volk­swa­gen and United Air­lines.

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