Have you heard the story of the colossal customer-service bungle over the “bedbug letter”?

A guest in a hotel finds himself attacked by bedbugs during his stay. He writes an angry letter to the president of the hotel company. Within days, the president sends the guest a heartfelt apology, which reads, in part: “I can assure you that such an event has never occurred before in our hotel. I promise you it will never happen again.”

Sounds good, except for one small detail: Included with the apology is the guest’s original letter. Scrawled across the top is the message: “Send this idiot the bedbug letter.”

So it begs the question, who is sorry now?

There are several lessons to be learned from this tale:

• Remedial customer service may start with an apology.

• Never, ever mess up an apology.

• The apology is almost always the start, not the end, of finishing things.

• If you think being sorry solves a problem, you will really be sorry.

• Finally, the cost of the fix is nearly always greater than doing things right the first time.

Start with the premise that everyone makes mistakes. It’s human nature. What happens next is what demonstrates the true level of regret. The hotel president likely lost that customer forever. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. That customer tells anyone who will listen about his experiences — both with the bugs and the insulting letter. Reputations are ruined in an instant.

Businesses long have understood that bad customer experiences will be reported to family and friends nine times more than good experiences. Misery loves company, I guess.

Even the most sincere apology has limited effect. But if it helps a little, it’s worth the effort. So don’t blow what could be your only opportunity.

We see an apology from some thoughtless public figure every week: “If I offended anyone, I apologize.” “My words were taken out of context.” “I didn’t realize that my actions would cause such a stir.” All pretty pathetic attempts at sounding sorry, in my opinion.

Train your brain to think before you speak, act or tweet. Self-restraint is not old-fashioned. Remember that your private conversations or anonymous postings may be anything but private and anonymous.

The apology is just the beginning. It is critical to get it right. So take steps to be sure you don’t disappoint a second time. The shallow “if I offended anyone” indicates that you are only sorry because you were forced into the apology. I’m curious, does anyone take those kinds of apologies seriously?

In business situations, apologies are generally related to poor service or defective products or missed deadlines. Those apologies must go beyond words.

First, admit your mistake. Don’t gloss over the error or the effect it had on your customer. Get to the point and own the situation. You will not win the blame game.

Next, offer a solution that will demonstrate your sincere desire to make things right. Even if the customer had some responsibility, the cost of fixing one mistake is much lower than trying to repair a reputation after you’ve been panned on Facebook, Twitter or Angie’s List.

Third, express your intention to make sure the same mistake never happens again. Offer the customer an opportunity to make suggestions, and be prepared to deal with critical feedback. Be sure to thank the customer for his input.

Finally, learn from the experience and use the lesson to train your staff. Make sure they understand that even minor mistakes and disappointments can cause major damage to your company’s good name.

Mackay’s Moral: Saying you’re sorry and showing you’re sorry are not the same thing.


Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.