Elton John once sang that ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’, but if you look at the social media accounts of transport companies it seems all too often to be the first thing they say.
This year alone, and remember we are only in the very early days of 2017, there have already been more than 13,000 apologies from operators of trains, trams, buses, the London Underground, and airlines, according to the recently created ‘Sorry for the inconvenience’ website.
For 2016 this figure was, somewhat astonishingly, more than 500,000.
I am regularly subjected to this ‘inconvenience’ on my commute to Media First towers and have been known to tweet my frustration, but I’m still staggered by the volume of apologies.
This could obviously be seen as a reflection of the current state of transport services, as was shown when the figures – which can be broken down for each operator - were used to recently report that ScotRail had said ‘sorry’ to travellers 10,000 times in 2016 – an average of 30 apologetic tweets a day.
But I think it also raises questions about whether these companies are simply saying ‘sorry’ too much, almost as a stock response, and whether the apology has become little more than corporate guff aimed at placating disgruntled travellers and attempting to stop them from sending more tweets.
A golden rule of the crisis media management playbook is for organisations to apologise early on to try to take control of the situation.
But very few of these tweets which receive apologies are about incidents that would fall in to the ‘crisis’ definition. They are from passengers suffering delayed or cancelled journeys, overcrowding, air conditioning malfunctions, power sockets not working, and so on. All annoying and some potentially disruptive, but not a crisis.
And often the operators are apologising for things which probably are not their fault at all, such as adverse weather conditions.
The problem with apologising all the time is that it becomes expected and there is a clear danger of robotic sounding responses which can veer perilously close to the bland and predictable tannoy messages played out across waiting rooms, especially when they then include the hollow sounding phrase ‘we apologise for the inconvenience’.
Perhaps I’m being a bit hard. So I asked one of our expert social media training course tutors what he thought.
Graham Jones said: “A good apology has three components; an acceptance of the problem, the fact that it is being seen from the perspective of the victim, and an explanation of how things will be put right. When people keep seeing the same type of apology, without the problem being put right, the impact is actually negative.
“Constant apologies suggest that the company does not care - if they really cared they would have put the problem right and would therefore not need to apologise.
“The huge rate of apologies from transport companies is contributing to reputational damage, rather than improving the view of customers; it is working against them, rather than for them.
“The answer is to be much more selective in what really needs an apology. Customers with a rant, for instance, don't need an apology - indeed all a company is doing is bringing the item to the attention of more people."
Metrolink recently said in response to a newspaper story about the ‘Sorry for the inconvenience’ website that: "We make no apology for saying sorry to our customers when things don’t go to plan or they think we can do better."
Such is the apparent fondness for saying ‘sorry’ among transport companies I’m almost surprised they didn’t apologise for all their apologies.
The sentiment of the quote is clear, but it overlooks the fact that overusing ‘we’re sorry’ makes it meaningless. Apologies should be reserved for when they are really needed and given careful consideration before use. They should not be used as an automatic response to every customer airing a grievance.
Here’s Graham again: “Companies need to work out whether they have made a mistake and then apologise for that. Then they need to fill their Twitter stream with evidence that they have corrected the problem and that it will not happen again. If they cannot do that, it suggests that the problem is nothing to do with social media, but the way their business is run.
“Often, constant apologies are a sign that the company itself is not operating well. Social media is not really the issue.”
Here are a few examples of recently tweeted apologies and our suggested alternatives:
@JuyrfgtRonnie Thanks for reporting and apologies. I'll fault this now. RH— Greater Anglia (@greateranglia) January 9, 2017
Alternative response: Thanks for letting us know – we’re on it.
@wgcdrspqr Sorry to hear it's chilly this morning on board, Simon. ^DB— TPE Customer Assist (@TPEassist) January 9, 2017
Alternative response: Let us know what train you are on and we’ll get this looked at.
@DeborahFletch18 Sorry, we're unable to reply to tweets at the weekend. Hope that you managed to make your journey.— Stagecoach Supertram (@SCSupertram) January 9, 2017
Alternative response: We'd question the value in replying after the event, especially to publicise limits to the social media service.
@beckhampton97 Very sorry, we are trying to make the signs more prominent. SR— Chiltern Railways (@chilternrailway) January 9, 2017
Alternative response: We are working on making these signs more prominent. Hope it’s quieter now.
@franciscarockey We are sorry for this. Please can you provide examples of when this has happened so that we can look into this.— Stagecoach East (@Stagecoach_East) January 9, 2017
Alternative response: Can you provide details please and we’ll look into it
When I take to Twitter to air my frustrations about my commute, I want to see a human sounding response that tells me what action is being taken to remedy the situation or information about when I am likely to get to my destination. And I don’t think I’m alone.
Constant apologies hardly convey reassurance you are likely to get where you want to go at anything like the time you would like. And it is worth thinking whether you would you buy a product from a company which was constantly saying ‘sorry’?
When it gets to the position where a website is being set up to record all the apologies in a particular sector, ‘sorry’ has surely become the easiest word.
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