Sorry not sorry

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I recently read a Harvard Business Review article about some customer service research. They had found that in difficult situations, customers report higher satisfaction after being served by a service representative who was focussed on finding solutions than one who was focussed on being empathetic and apologetic, even when the final outcome was the same.

The reasons for this weren’t conclusive — there is some research that shows a trade-off between perception of warmth and perception of competence (if a person is perceived as warm, they tend to be perceived as less competent and vice versa). It is also possible that the amount of time/effort to be spent on the problem is perceived to be fixed, and if a service representative is busy apologising, they’re wasting time that they could have been using for figuring out solutions.

This resonated with some of my own thoughts on client management. When producers have asked me to proofread their emails to clients in difficult or sensitive situations, one of the most frequent pieces of feedback I have given is to apologise less, especially if your team is not at fault. The client is primarily interested in getting the problem fixed, so move quickly on to what you have found in investigating the problem, and then to proposing solutions.

Where possible, try to suggest multiple solutions to a client, and present rationales for each of them. This demonstrates that you’ve thought through the problem, and helps the client regain a sense of control by allowing them to make an informed choice. (If your team has a recommended solution, you can indicate that.)

As a general rule, avoid words like “unfortunately” or “hopefully” — the uncertainty and lack of control that these words suggest can be particularly unsettling in the midst of a difficult situation. If there are risks that your team is concerned about, it’s better to spell them out clearly and specifically, along with their likelihoods and impact.

Of course there will be times when your team makes mistakes, and a real apology is needed to mend the relationship. But the apology then will be worth more if you hadn’t previously wasted them on situations where the client was looking for solutions, not sorrys.


“Sorry” is Not Enough, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2018 Issue

For Better Customer Service, Offer Options, Not Apologies, HBR IdeaCast, 16 January 2018

Testing for boundaries

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In creative work, if you don’t push the boundaries you become boring; in the digital industry, failing to innovate may even render you obsolete. As a producer, the core of your role emphasises playing it safe, going with tried-and-tested solutions, because the typical KPIs for producers are things like project profitability and punctuality of delivery…. [continue]

How to learn from retrospectives

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Having a retrospective (AKA wash-up, post mortem) at the end of a project is a good way to learn from your experience as a project team, to examine what went well, what didn’t go well, what could’ve been done differently in hindsight. There is a fine balance in the discussions that form a retrospective —… [continue]

Job descriptions as a system of responsibilities

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I’ve occasionally been asked to write new job descriptions for new producer roles, or rewrite descriptions for existing roles. When given this task, the first thing I usually ask is whether if I can have access to the current job descriptions of the other roles in the company (or the sub-team if it’s a big… [continue]

Maintaining morale

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High morale inoculates a team against temporary pressures. A team with high morale has members that like, trust, and respect each other, which makes them feel more confident in tackling problems together than a group with low morale. Given similar levels of ability, a team with high morale is more likely to succeed in a… [continue]

On briefing, A-Teams, and MasterChef

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I’ve been a long-time MasterChef fan, and love seeing all these amazing dishes being created, but the episode I always most look forward to each week is the Team Challenge. I think it’s my favourite because it relates to something I think about all the time — how, no matter how good your individual team… [continue]

Accountability for estimates

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Sometime early on in my career as a producer, I remember seeing a designer argue with another producer. The producer was briefing in some work, saying there were two days to complete it. The designer thought it was unreasonable — it was more like a four- or five-day job — and asked who estimated the work…. [continue]