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Accountability means never having to say "we're sorry"

"We're sorry" is a terrible thing to say to a frustrated customer. That is, unless you've already fixed the problem. Apologizing before you've fixed the problem, as we all know first hand, can get things going downhill fast. Before, we were frustrated with the product or service. Now we're frustrated with your employee, and by extension, you and your brand. This is rapidly approaching common knowledge in the business world, so why do so many businesses still miss the mark in the moments that count?

I recently brought my car into the dealer for a minor recall, and figured I'd have them test the battery while I was there, as it seemed like it was taking longer than it should to turn over since the mornings have gotten colder where I live. I was already a bit frustrated because I'd had the car in for a scheduled service not long before and was told everything 'checked out okay'. Turns out the tech had missed the issue, and the battery needed to be replaced. But now it was out of warranty. In reading this, you intuitively know exactly what they should have done. And they did, but let's use this as an example of what they could've done to go so much further.

What they did was what I'd call basic accountability. Sensing my frustration, the service tech went to his manager and came back shortly to let me know that they’d replace the battery free of charge. They did, and 30 minutes later I was on my way. But the total time I was there was now an hour and a half when it was supposed to be 20-30 minutes. Technically, they 'made me whole', but I didn't leave with a 'wow' feeling.

The next level, what I'll call systematized accountability, was about something they should've done before I arrived. For sure something like this had happened before, and on one of those occasions the manager should've taken the tech aside and said "Great job, you did the right thing coming to ask. And, you shouldn't have to. It's my fault you don't have a set of clear guidelines to be able to make that call on your own. Sorry I put you out there without that today, but you'll have it by morning." I still wouldn't have left with an all the way 'wow' feeling, but I would have at least had the feeling that they had put some thought into their systems, and their front line people had been given 'authority' to care.

The action step that a world-class organization takes is taking the customer's pain and making it their own – with interest on that pain compounded by the minute.

But in the end what I was really wanting was what I'll call world class accountability, and it involved one more step. As I was wrapping up my paperwork, the manager would've come out front and said "Hi Mr. Raymond, I know Tim is working on getting you out of here quick and free of charge, but I just wanted you to know I'll be in touch in the next few days after I find out how we missed it the first time. We didn't meet our standards and I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen to anyone else." If he'd have done that, I would've put a link to the dealership right here.

This small example is one of the many ways you can start to see the direct, though sometimes subtle, connection between poor customer service and leadership dysfunction. It's where we find the answer to the longing of most small business owners: "Why can't I get my people to care as much as I do?" Or, said another way: "Why isn't accountability happening on the front lines of my business?" The answer is almost never about the people, it's about something lacking much higher up the organizational chart.

Your employees need a model for what real accountability looks like. And you need to model all three components - though most people stop at best with only two - owning your mistake and apologizing. But it's the step in between those two where trust is restored, and the middle step is about taking action.

The action step that a world-class organization takes is taking the customer's pain and making it their own - with interest on that pain compounded by the minute.

And while the system and process are critical to reducing the need for this kind of accountability, mistakes will still happen. And when they do, it comes down to the heart and courage to do the right thing. That's the level that we shop at - at the level of emotion and story - and it's at that level where world-class accountability happens.

And when it does, when accountability moves from being an idea to a lived value inside your business, you'll never have to say 'we're sorry'. It will flow out of your inspired employees with no scripting at all.

Jonathan Raymond

Written by Jonathan Raymond

Jonathan was a frequent contributor to the EMyth blog from 2011-2015. His articles focus on marketing, branding, and organizational culture.