In classical literature, an apology can mean a defense, such as Plato’s Apology. In modern parlance, an apology is known as an expression of genuine sorrow and an acceptance of responsibility for having caused harm to another person. Consumers should be on guard lest a company use the semblance of an apology for marketing purposes.
Robert Bacal advises that an apology be used as a strategy to use “along with other techniques” (italics added, p. 19). According to Bacal (p. 19), “perfunctory or insincere apologies are worse than saying nothing at all.” Accordingly, he advises that a “sincere apology can help calm a customer, particularly when you or your company has made an error. You can apologize on behalf of your company.” However, how can an apology be both sincere and geared to manipulating a customer?
Creating the appearance of sincerity is not to proffer a sincere apology, yet such a distinction may be irrelevant to an entity that cannot feel. In other words, how can a collective entity such as a company can proffer a genuine apology when such entities can not feel because they are organizations.
So when a manager tells a wronged customer, “the company is sorry” for the conduct of one of the employees,” the sentence can be taken as sheer anthropomorphism—hence without real substance. This might not be a problem for the manager who wants to give the impression of an apology in order to disarm the aggrieved customer, but such manipulation is far from genuine sorrow and a willingness to take responsibility in terms of making things right.
Robert Bacal advises, “Keep in mind that tendering an apology doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re admitting responsibility.” Such having one’s cake and eating it too is in line with trying to make another sale without having to compensate for the last sale gone wrong. That is to say, the decoupling of an apology from admitting responsibility goes alone with maximizing self-interest, at least in the short term (i.e., selfishness). As profit-seeking machines, corporations are inherently oriented to their own interests; hence getting something out of apologizing while obviating any cost fits with the corporate apology.
In keeping with a business’ nature, it can also be argued that because corporations are economic entities rather than human, a corporate apology must involve compensation to be valid. In other words, unless a business gives something to the wronged consumer to make up for the error or mistake, no apology has taken place. For an economic entity to insist that “genuine feeling” is equally valid is for that entity to evince a category mistake, for corporations do not have feelings—only the individual humans in organizations do.
Bacal (p. 22) refers to a “bonus buy off” as a technique of “offering something of value to the customer as reimbursement for inconvenience or other problems.” However, Bacal (p. 22, italics added) adds that the monetary value need not be significant, “since the point is to be perceived as making an effort.” I contend that the point is not to be perceived as making an effort; rather, the compensation is to pay the customer for the harm done by company employees and compensate for the time and effort spent by the customer in seeking redress. A company is an economic entity, so this conception of paying ought to fit into the commercial lexicon (whereas genuine sorrow does not).
Therefore, customers should insist on the corporate apology being in the form of monetary value; otherwise, the apparent apology should be refused. A customer turning down a company’s easy apology can even use corporate lingo, saying something like, “Unfortunately (i.e., appearance of sorrow) I am unable (i.e., false rigidity) to accept the apology as it does not contain compensation and a business is, after all, a nexus (or entity) of economic transactions.” If the manager replies that the company “cannot” compensate for an error or mistake, the customer has the answer: no apology had been made after all. The customer should reply, “Accordingly, your company’s apology is not accepted” and end the call (and cease doing business with the company). In short, such a customer will have tested the “company’s sincerity” and found the entity wanting rather than genuine. Such pretense in place of sincerity violates the principle of honesty that is in business ethics.
According to Business Ethics for Dummies (p. 239), corporate apologies should be sincere, as soon as possible, and be coupled with a correction to the problem. I contend that the correction should include compensation for the customer, or the problem is not fully corrected in terms of making up for the harm caused by employees of the company (note that I avoid attributing moral agency on the organization itself). In Business Ethics, it is noted that if the compensation is too low—such as McDonald’s offer of $800 to compensate a hospitalized customer scalded by the hot coffee—the offer can be taken as an insult. This means that sufficient compensation is indeed part of taking responsibility, which in turn is implied in apologizing.
If a manager either refuses to compensate or does so as passive aggression (e.g., $800 for a week of hospitalization), the insult added to injury combination is a red flag ethically as well as psychologically. From such a mentality, the smart and self-confident customer simply disengages to greener pastures and happier days, leaving the squalid manager to consociate with his or her own kind: a new bird of prey known for its weakness and resentment, according to Nietzsche. The point is to see through the “perceived sincerity” and speak to managers in economic terms in order to separate the men from the boys. A corporate apology is an economic transaction, rather than an emotion. Kids play with emotions whereas adults are willing to put their money where their mouths are.
Robert Bacal, Perfect Phrases for Customer Service, 2nd Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 2011).
Norman Bowie and Meg Schneider, Business Ethics for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011).