Research Corner – The Power of an Apology

June 5, 2008

We’ve all been there. That frustrating moment in which we find out that the contract for our cellular phone is not as straightforward as we believed it to be, or that the warranty for our laptop covers everything, except for the one single problem we are having with it. These kinds of frustrations and disappointments have become an integral part of consumers’ lives, and may take the form ineffective customer support, long lines, mouse print in contracts, etc. Bottom line is that such ‘treatment’ on the part of marketers is likely to affect the way consumers behave.

So what do we do? We take revenge. And by revenge, I am referring to a very wide spectrum of behaviors all of which make s feel that we are now ‘in control’, that ‘we make things right’.
Together with a colleague we thought it would be interesting to see whether people are willing to take revenge even when doing so makes them the bad, by means of knowingly taking money that does not belong to them. In our experiment we asked people to perform a task in exchange for a payment of $5. But we also needed to annoy half of our participants, similar to the way that marketers annoy consumers. So we instructed the experimenter to be rude to them. How? While explaining the instructions of the study the experimenter presumably answered a call on his phone, and had an imaginary conversation with a friend regarding their plans for that evening (dinner? pizza? movie). After a mere 20 seconds period, he hung up and continued giving the instructions, without any reference to the phone call.
To test whether annoyed people are more likely to take revenge than un-annoyed people, we handed all participant more cash than we said we would, asked them to count it and sign they received their payment. This last part (counting and signing) was done discretely such that only the participant saw how much money was in the pile. Actual Revenge was measured using the percent of people that returned/kept the extra cash.
As you probably guessed by now, annoyed people were less likely to return the excess cash. In other words, they stole (passively, but still…), presumably to punish the rude behavior and make things right.
When it comes to an apology, we know that it can be very powerful. We also know that people tend to be mindless, or in other words use heuristics when making judgments. Combining these together, we were wondering whether an apology, even if lame, would reduce people’s tendency to take revenge.
Using the same setting we conducted a follow-up experiment. This time, the experimenter behaved either as he did in the previous study, OR, added a brief apology after hanging up the phone (the apology was: “I am sorry about that”). Magic!
This tiny, almost insincere, apology was enough to change the behavior of the annoyed group. It seems they were no longer annoyed.
Now, are these results good news for marketers? Yes and no.
No, because they show that consumers will not sit back. When you annoy them, they will use an opportunity to take revenge, even if doing so makes them behave in an immoral, and sometimes illegal way. Combined with the ease in which we can spread news (e.g., YouTube, Facebook), especially bad news, this suggests that marketers should be more cautious.
Yes, because humans are essentially kind, and are willing to forgive. In fact, forgiving was shown to enhance one’s well-being. So if you make a mistake, and apologize, you may be forgiven. But probably not if you abuse this vote of trust, and once (or twice, three times, etc.) more, mistreat your customers.
Bottom line? Treat every customer as if they sign your paycheck…because they do!

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One Response to “Research Corner – The Power of an Apology”

  1. Jasmine Says:

    One of the big differences I experienced after moving to the US from Canada was that, true to stereotype, Canadians apologize a lot. In particular, Canadian customer-facing staff apologize much more often than do their American counterparts – for example, virtually every ‘we can’t/don’t do that’ reply in Canada is begun with an ‘I’m sorry but” and more often than not in Canada you’ll get an ‘I’m sorry for the wait’ after a longish line. Since culture likely thus plays a role in setting customer expectations, it would be interesting to see a) whether an apology carries more or less weight in different cultures, and b) whether the ‘annoyance-apology’ combo ever made people more sympathetic (steal less frequently) then the baseline no annoyance group.


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