What a sorry state: Going Uber and above the call of duty


What a sorry state: Going Uber and above the call of duty

Everybody seems to be apologising these days, but there’s definitely a right and a wrong way of doing it

Tim Cohen

There has been a lot of apologising going on and, judging from what is coming up at the Zondo and Nugent commissions, there may need to be more.
A host of companies in SA have apologised recently including KPMG, McKinsey and Bell Pottinger, just to name a few. But how should companies apologise?
Interestingly, there is a company which has recently undertaken the most extensive field study on the subject that perhaps has ever been done. That company is Uber, and its findings are in some ways very logical and in others surprising.
They are very surprising because they illustrate how ineffective and perhaps even counterproductive apologising can be, in certain circumstances. But also how saying sorry can help.
What happened in Uber is now something of an urban legend. Uber’s economist (weird they have one but there it is) John List, whose main employer is the University of Chicago, had to give a presentation last year at the American Economic Association meeting which happened to also be in Chicago. He got into the Uber and starting doing last-minute tweaks to his presentation in the car. When he looked up after half an hour, he was back home. The driver apparently got confused and thought he had changed his mind and wanted to go back home. They then turned around and went back, with List arriving late.
Since he was in-house, List then did what you would expect. He phoned the boss. His complaint was that Uber had not even apologised. During the discussion with then CEO Travis Kalanick (who ironically had to apologise himself later for sexual harassment but was kicked out anyway), it was decided that List should look at the problem in more detail using Uber’s enormous database.
List did so with three other economists who were on the frontlines of the saying sorry business. Apologies of different kinds were sent to eight different groups of people who had had really disastrous trips. These were people who typically were delivered in double the time specified when the trip started.
First, they tried to quantify how much disastrous trips were costing the company, and the answer was a lot. On average, people in this segment used Uber 5% less over the next three months than they had previously.
List and his colleagues divided the group of 1.5 million people into eight categories (there was one that got no apology). Then there were three groups that got some kind of apology: first a basic apology group where the poor service was simply acknowledged; then a second group that was served a “status” apology in which you acknowledge the actual problem and say “we know our estimate was off”; the third group got a “commitment apology” saying, “we are working hard to give you arrival times” – effectively saying “we will do better in the future”.
These four groups were compared with a group that got a $5 coupon for a future trip. What would you guess would be the group that got the best response? In a way, that’s pretty obvious – people liked the coupon apology best, and it turned the 5% decline into a 2% decline. The interesting part is that beyond the payment, there was very little difference between the types of apology. Furthermore, the difference between the three apology categories and the no-apology category was extremely small. “You really have to squint hard to make the case that apologies by themselves work,” List told the podcast Freakonomics.
So why did the coupon work? This is a more difficult question because it’s not just about the money. Generally, people seem to like apologies that have a cost associated with them, even if that cost is simply taking a knock to your reputation. This is often why the best apologies, if there is no financial reward involved, should be made in public.
But there is one further twist to this tale. If you make a commitment to do better in future and then go and make the same mistake again, the consequences can be really disastrous. No amount of apologising helps. Apologies can really backfire.
Furthermore, there is another intriguing problem: apologising can make you seem vulnerable and unprofessional. It tends to establish a relationship between apologiser and apologisee, which promotes the sense of righteous indignation.
The fact is that we often feel we should apologise and need to apologise. It just feels good and right to do so. But if you look deeper, we may be doing it for the wrong reasons; often what we really regret is not that we did it, but that we were caught. How many times have you heard someone say: “I regret that other people misinterpreted what I said.” That is not an apology.
The trick is to focus not on yourself but on the victim, be genuine, and pay the price. None of those is easy. But, sadly, we are not getting better at it.

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