Ratcheting Down Customer Rage

Turns out lengthy apologies aren't the answer

A video illuminating an airline worker's fast thinking caught Jagdip Singh's eye. He watched as a distressed passenger erupted in anger over a missed flight, then calmed down as the airline agent offered another flight option. The agent's approach worked because she did something many customer-service workers fail to do: She offered speedy solutions rather than repeated apologies, said Singh, PhD, AT&T Professor of Marketing at Case Western Reserve's Weatherhead School of Management.

An expert on business-customer relations, Singh last year led a team of Case Western Reserve University researchers who reviewed 111 videos shot at U.S. and U.K. airports to analyze how problem-solving actions by customer-service agents impacted the satisfaction of customers who contended with missed flights, lost bags or experienced other travel mishaps. The fly-on-the-wall type candid videos were shot with traveler approval for a British TV show to capture authentic interactions.

The key study findings—that customers were more satisfied by solutions-oriented options and less time spent on empathy and apologizing—were the focus earlier this year of a Harvard Business Review article aptly titled " 'Sorry' is Not Enough." The full study appeared in the April issue of Journal of Marketing Research.

That may seem counterintuitive in our apology-hungry culture, but when airline staff made effusive apologies that lasted more than about seven seconds, they were less able to do what consumers wanted: be effective problem-solvers, said Singh.

He said the research showed that customers come away happier—even when the outcome isn't exactly what they wanted—when workers briefly apologize and then jump into a problem-solving mode and offer several options.

And he urges consumers to join in and focus on solutions, not venting.

"Customers often impede progress because they become combative," Singh said, and workers may be less willing to explore solutions when verbally abused.

But what should customers do when issues remain unresolved? Singh recommends they don't give up but pursue speaking to a manager, emailing a top executive or posting a complaint on social media to attract the company's attention.

—Jonathan Katz