CU Water Cooler

When "Sorry" Doesn't Cut It Anymore

Jimmy MarksComment

My wife and I were at a restaurant the other night that is famous for its steak fries. You can get a free basket of them to nibble on as an appetizer while you wait for your dinner to arrive. It's one of our favorite places for this reason. Their fries are delicious, the atmosphere's a little corny (not so much so that it takes away from your evening), and their burgers are great. Not naming names, but... what if Batman's sidekick was a Communist?

You get the picture.

The other night, we sat down at a high-top bar table and ordered our food and requested a basket of fries. Our server came back with drinks and napkins and silverware... but no fries. She came back for refills—no fries. She brought over ketchup and their signature seasoning salt.

No fries.

When our food arrived, she came back over and said how sorry she was. She said the kitchen was very backed up and everyone was in the weeds. Being former servers ourselves, my wife and I told our server not to worry about it.

We ate our dinner, which was fine enough. Our server checked back and asked if we wanted that side-order of fries anyway. "Sure," we said.

Fifteen minutes after we'd finished our dinner, there were still no fries. The server brought the check. We gave her our credit card, she ran the bill and we got our receipts to sign.

At that moment, out walked another server with a tiny basket of the most pitiful steak fries you've ever seen in your life. A crunched up bag of potato chips would've been more satisfying. The server gave us a weak grin and then darted away, off to disappoint yet another table.

"Sorry," she said once again. We left, vowing that it would be a very long time before we returned to "Communist Batman's Sidekick's Burger Restaurant". A very, very, very long time.


I kept count of the number of times our server said, "Sorry." It got as high as five. Spurred by this, I tried to think back about the last time I'd had sub-par customer experience. The last salesperson I'd spoken to had my order wrong as well and said "sorry" about nine times in a fifteen-minute exchange.

I'm on the phone all the time with salespeople, customer service reps, account managers, call-center workers... and the more I think about their comportment with me, the more I realize that (in some cases) "sorry" might as well be "abracadabra" in a kid's birthday magic act. It's supposed to be magic, but it's really just there to help convey the fact that an action is happening. You tap the hat with the wand and say "abracadabra" and a dove flies out; a dove you've hidden in a secret compartment a few hours before, but a dove nonetheless.

But if you don't take out the dove (or if you don't have a dove to begin with), "abracadabra" is meaningless. It's doesn't even have the appearance of magic, it's just a word.

So is "sorry" when there's no action taken after it's been said.

My three favorite fumble recoveries in customer service

When I look back at all the times poor service has been made up for by a positive action, I can think of three specific instances in which the person responsible "recovered the fumble" (sorry, football on the brain) and improved my impression of the company.

Fumble 1: "Mermaid-Themed Coffee Joint"

I was at "Mermaid-Themed Coffee Joint" one morning and my drink got lost in the shuffle. The barista noticed I was waiting around and asked, "Did you have a drink coming?"

I was a little befuddled. "Yeah, I had a grande cappuccino..."

"Sorry," he said very quickly, "that's on me, I didn't see your cup here. Listen, thanks for waiting, here's a coupon. Your next drink is on us."

Boom. Just like that. The barista made me the drink I wanted, gave me the coupon and wished me a nice day. It made "Mermaid-Themed Coffee Joint" my go-to for fancy-pants coffee.

Fumble 2: Primanti Bros.

I know I've left every other brand name out of this, but I simply cannot miss a chance to talk up Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh, PA. A Pittsburghian (Pittsburgher? Pittsburghese?) friend of mine invited me to come see his hometown one weekend and I jumped at the chance. We went to the Italian market, we went to a Pirate's game, and of course, we went to Primanti Bros.

Primanti Bros. is a funky sandwich shop that specializes in Iron City beer and big, meaty sandwiches. It's a must-visit if you're ever in town. And I only say that because of their own fumble recovery.

I'm at the counter, waiting for my lunch. My two friends get their sandwiches and I'm left twiddling my thumbs. Five minutes pass—no sandwich. Ten minutes pass—no sandwich. The spunky old lady working the grill is shouting at the other waitresses in her loud Pittsburghian accent. Finally, I decide to speak up.

"You got a sandwich back there for me at all?!" I shouted into the fray. Our waitress turned to look at us.

"You din' get yer sanwich?" she asked. I shook my head. She turned and shouted to the lady working the grill.

"Whassamatter wit you, you din' give this guy his sanwich!"

"Shaddup!" said the grill cook. The waitress told me she was sorry, gave me some fries (again with the fries!) and a free beer to make up for it. My sandwich came straight off the grill to my plate, piping hot and delicious. The other waitresses all laughed and the grill cook shook her spatula at them.

You can't beat free beer or a free show. I had both.

Fumble 3: My Credit Union

Fumble three wasn't really the credit union's fault. My debit card broke in half. Literally, right in half. How's that even happen?

Well, whatever it was, I needed a new debit card. Having both pieces of the card in hand, I went into the branch like a kid that just broke his kite. The MSR greeted me at the counter.

"For whatever reason, my card just broke in half. I need a new one, I guess," I said glumly. I would have to wait weeks for a new card and then change all my numbers and...

"Oh, that's no problem. Hold on right here..."

The MSR went and got a form for me to fill out. I jotted down my information and handed it back. She disappeared and, like magic, came back with my card in one piece.

"How'd you do that?" I wondered.

"Well, our policy is—if it's the same card number and you have the card itself, we can replace it with a card with the same information on it. It's pretty simple, I just did it a few minutes ago."

I was astonished. Wow, that was fast.

"Sorry for any inconvenience," she said, though she really didn't have to say anything. I raved about that for weeks afterwards. My friends were in shock, "Just like that? You didn't have to go online or wait two weeks or anything?!"

I don't want regrets (I have enough of my own)

In each of these stories, the most interesting part was the action taken, not the words said. "I'm so sorry," is nice to hear, but only when it's the start of a sentence that ends in, "here's what we're going to do to fix this."

In the case of the "Mermaid-Themed Coffee Joint", the barista was empowered to speak on behalf of one of the world's largest coffee chains and offer recompense. In the case of the credit union, the MSR knew the exact steps that needed to be taken to make the problem disappear. In the case of the "Communist Batman's Sidekick's Hamburger Restaurant"... nothing really happened. A powerless person offered a set of shrugged shoulders and only delivered the last meager attempt at a remedy at the last possible moment. By then, damage done, and we were already sick of all the "I'm sorries." We just wanted to go.

In my talk about Trust at last year's Cuwacoo (That stands for CU Water Cooler Symposium), I discussed the levels of trust necessary to make a customer or member overlook a "fumble," accept it as part of any business relationship, and move on happily. It takes years to attain that level of trust and dozens of instances of consistent, convenient service to cement it. Never take that for granted.

The one last thing about "sorry" that really matters to me? Don't give me an insincere "sorry." If you don't really mean it, don't say it. If you don't have anything to show for it, don't say it. If you're using it to put the problem back on me ("I'm sorry if that upsets you" is one of the crummiest ways to sneak out of blame I've ever heard), don't say it.

"Sorry" isn't just something you say. It's also something you do.


Jimmy Marks was supposed to have this article to Tim on Tuesday. He's really very sorry and is sending Tim and the Currency crew a gift certificate to Tim Horton's for all the waiting they had to endure. See? Simple.