Last week, when we talked about thinking like a marketer, I shared the following statistic from Blue Kite Marketing

People use hundreds of products and services every day. About 95 percent of those interactions go completely unnoticed. Another three percent of those experiences are ones that you are complaining about."

What that tells us is that people will share bad experiences and great experiences, but the "good" experiences just get forgotten.  Creating excellent experiences for your clients are obviously the goal here, but just as important is avoiding the bad ones that will stick with people and motivate them to market on your behalf…in a negative way. 

There are two little words that can diffuse an unfortunate situation, and they are just not used enough these days: 

I’m sorry."

 

Many of my lawyers will start to feel their palms sweat as I say that, because of concerns that an apology is an admission of guilt, and therefore liability. There are some apologies that that would be true for, but in many cases, all people want to hear that their frustration is being understood, and you value their business enough to try to rectify things – and a simple "I’m sorry" followed by "how can we fix this?" will often make the difference between driving the client away, and creating a loyal one. 

Let’s look at an example from outside of legal to illustrate. Two weeks ago, I ordered some clothing items from an online store that was new to me, which I needed for this previous weekend. I placed the order, added expedited shipping, and received my confirmation email.

Three days later, I received a shipping confirmation. They had mentioned on the site that there may be a 48 hour processing time, so I thought that was okay, though not great. The next day, I received yet another email to tell me that one of the items I needed was not in stock, so I wouldn’t be charged. 

I immediately sent back a response to say why I was unhappy with that (more on that in a moment), and to say that I felt it was bad service, and I would no longer order from them. I’ve had no response, and it’s been a week. 

There were a few places where things went astray here: 

  • Their online stock wasn’t completely up-to-date, so I was not advised that they were out of stock before I placed my order, which would have changed my decision-making process. 
  • Since I understand these things can happen (although the systems really should be linked), they waited four days to let me know that I wouldn’t be receiving my order in its entirety, despite the fact that my expedited shipping should have alerted them that I needed it soon). 
  • After I wrote them an email giving them the opportunity to apologize and ask how they could make it right, I had no response.

And to add to my frustration, when I received my order, another of the pieces sent was the completely wrong size – the order and the shipping manifest all had the correct size listed, but the package contained a very clearly marked incorrect piece. 

I certainly won’t be ordering from them again. 

What do clothes have to do with lawyers? More than you think! 

  • Managing expectations is key: The store is already at fault for not having an inventory system that is directly linked to their sales system online, so that when something is out of stock, a customer is immediately notified. Similarly, if you promise something to your clients and then fail to deliver (or fail to deliver in the time frame you’ve given them), that will leave a bad taste in their mouth. I’d rather be pleasantly surprised by the outcome of something because my expectations were properly managed than disappointed because I was told "yes," when "maybe" would do. 
     
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: We’ve all heard clients say that the one thing they hate is surprises, especially surprises on their bills. As their attorney, you know if something comes up that will require more of your time, outside expertise, additional work, and this should be communicated to the client.  The end result of them having to pay you more may be the same, but you will have kept them advised the entire time, allowing them to make the adjustments internally that they need to (and decisions about proceeding where necessary), rather than giving them a nasty surprise at the end. 

    None of us enjoy delivering bad news. But the impact of bad news is magnified when it’s delivered either well after you clearly knew about it, or well after when it’s possible to do something about it. 
     

  • Saying "I’m sorry:" This one is huge for me. So many things can be made right, or at least minimized, with those two words. Things go wrong, all the time. I know that, you know that, and your clients know that. But saying to them, "I’m sorry that this happened," and in some cases, "what can we do to make this right?" acknowledges that you recognize that they’re angry and upset, that they have the right to feel that way, and you want to help to make things better. 

    Had the store come back to me and apologized, and suggested that they could ship me a different item by the time that I needed it, I would have had a very different impression of them, and they may even have created a repeat and loyal customer. 
     

  • Never ignore or make excuses to someone who is angry: The customer service experiences that always stick out to me are the ones where someone either ignores that I’m upset with my interaction with their business, or where they try to excuse what happened by doing everything possible to blame anyone but themselves. Nothing makes me madder and more likely to start a crusade of bad publicity than when a company won’t acknowledge that they’ve made a mistake (hence the power of "I’m sorry.").

    There is one instance in particular where I had purchased a car that had a very serious and dangerous fault in it. I insisted that there was a problem, and was told again and again that it was my driving and that it was safe. It took almost a year to get them to fix it (and to push my anger far enough up the chain of command to get an actual apology). Coincidentally, this same car company is now paying out claims as a result of a class action lawsuit for exactly the defect that I had in my car. 

    Had they apologized and fixed the car when I noticed the problem (as I drove off the lot, by the way), I would have been a long and loyal customer, who raved about their service for years to come.  I was absolutely understanding that sometimes there are issues with cars, but I was not understanding that they ignored and belittled my concerns and right to be heard. So instead of sharing a positive experience, I tell everyone the story about their nightmare customer service. 

Your clients will be telling your story whether it’s a good or bad one, so it’s important to make sure that you’re doing everything you can to make their experiences positive. Bad or complicated things happen, mistakes can be made, but it’s what you do AFTER those things that makes the difference.

"I’m sorry" can turn a "bad" client experience (that a client will repeat and share and maybe use as the reason to end their relationship with you) into either an "excellent" and memorable experience, or at the minimum, a "good" experience that is easily forgotten.