Hacking Forgiveness

My labmate at Stanford was in trouble because it was 2am and he was about 8 hours late for dinner with his girlfriend.

He asked me what to do, because I was the only female in the building at that hour. I told him to stop by Safeway on the way home and pick up some flowers.

It worked. I’m so smart.

My labmate was essentially bribing his girlfriend to stop bitching at him. It set a dangerous precedent because from then on, whenever he pissed her off he was expected to bring her a consolation present. He bought her progressively nicer things until the only thing left to buy was a wedding ring.

Forgiveness can’t be bought, but silence can. Large corporations can afford to buy silence from unhappy customers. United Airlines compensates their passengers with a $200 travel voucher if the passenger’s dog dies in flight. They call these Customer Appreciation cards.

United Apology Card

The very nature of the voucher indicates that it has nothing to do with customer appreciation. It’s a tacit agreement that the customer will shut up in exchange for a $200 travel voucher.

Startups face the uphill battle of having to convince customers that they are experienced experts when in reality they haven’t existed long enough to have all the corner cases figured out yet. And because they don’t have the resources to offer things like travel vouchers, they have to hack forgiveness the old-fashioned way:

Act early and own your mistakes. Tell the other party you screwed up before they discover it for themselves. Don’t tell the customer that their dog is merely pinin’ for the fjords.

Express real customer appreciation. Initial apologies will likely be rebuffed. Explain why you are making the effort to seek forgiveness.

Don’t make excuses. Doesn’t matter if you’re an outsourced customer support technician in Bangalore, take personal responsibility and absorb the blows.

Learn from your mistakes. Tell the other person what you learned. If you involve them in your education process, they’ll feel more like an advisor and less like a victim. They will view the poor experience as an investment rather than a loss.

Start building trust again. The world is tough; you might wash 10,000 windows but people will only remember the one you fell through. You just have to get back out there and start climbing again. Or, distract from the matter at hand by crashing an airplane into Mount Everest or something.

These steps also work for when your girlfriend is super mad at you. Forgiveness is about building relationships, which big corporations and PhD students don’t have time to do. Don’t build relationships with people who can be bribed, because someone else will always be able to offer a larger bribe.

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