Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

The Consumer World: A Sorry Place

Apologies used to mean something, but in today's world of commerce, the phrase "I'm sorry" has gone hollow. It's as if the business model now includes a formula for humoring the customer with rote responses lacking all contrition.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We're sorry if you don't like today's program. We apologize. We won't make it better, of course. But we're sorry.

Many of us were taught to regard an apology with appreciation and respect. An apology was an indication of character, a sign of humility. But I think the quality of modern apologies may have been cheapened by the reflexive and usually useless apologies that Americans hear everyday about lost luggage and delayed flights, the refrigerator that's never delivered by five the day they say, spurious and inexplicable charges of 4.50 and 7.50 that appear on your phone bill, etc., etc., etc., your favorite examples here.

It's as if somebody at the Wharton Business School was poring over spreadsheets one day when it came to them: why spend all this money on customer complaints? Just create something called the Consumer Satisfaction Department and teach people to say I'm sorry, preferably over the phone from Bangladesh. Case closed, move on, as a great businessman likes to say.

A long time ago my father sent a complaint to a shaving cream company because he only got something like 70 shaves from the can rather than the 90 or so advertised. When my mother brought me home from school one day, he was exultant. The company had apologized and sent a whole case of shaving cream. My mother looked chagrined.

She confessed that she had been using that shaving cream for her legs, but we kept the crate. I think my father may have been buried with the last few cans.

That kind of responsibility - pride in a brand name - seems to be missing from a lot of everyday consumer relationships, which after all fill a good deal of every American's day. I thought of my father's experience just today when I got an e-mail from a company apologized because their travel aftershave balm bottles don't work. They apologized and said customers could get a free replacement if they ordered more.

Every so often I hear a story about some friend of a friend who complained about a flight that was inexplicably delayed and got a free ticket. Such stories, I'm prepared to say, are urban myths. Airline passengers these days don't get peanuts and water on nine-hour flights. As business analysts have pointed out, most airlines aren't worried about keeping customers. They can't afford to support the flights and routes they already have.

Now, the traditional check against poor service has been the freedom of the customer to do business elsewhere. But how many of us are truly willing or able to pay more for diapers, a refrigerator or an airplane trip on the thin hope of better service?

And before we indulge ourselves in smoldering resentment against faceless corporations, we might ask ourselves this: if we own stock in those companies, would we cheerfully accept lower profits for the pride of providing better service, or would we prefer to make more money and just say, I'm sorry?

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ERIC IDLE (Comedian): (Singing) ...and say sorry again, say sorry again, never mind who's to blame, there's no sense in calling names, oh say sorry again, don't let (unintelligible) die, you could be (unintelligible) if you say sorry again...

SIMON: The song stylings of Eric Idle. This is NPR News.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small