A number of years ago, a movie swept much of the world, its name was “Love Story.” The movie’s most famous line was “Love means never to have to say you’re sorry.” It is not the purpose of this month’s Tourism Tidbits to critique the movie’s philosophy, but what may or may not be true in love, certainly is not true in business in general and in the travel and tourism business in particular.

Anyone who works in travel and tourism knows that things do go wrong. From hotel bathrooms that overflow to travel delays, from employees who may be having a bad day to food that is served not up-to-standards, tourism and travel often feels like a minefield of potential crises. While these mishaps may not be intentional our customers do suffer, and may have good reasons to complain especially during the summer months when travel is at its peak and nerves are often frayed. Apologizing is never easy even under the “best” of circumstances.

In the case of tourism and travel, where there is a tendency toward stress, the successful use of the apology as a marketing tool has become an essential art form. To help you hone your apology skills, Tourism Tidbits offers the following suggestions.

Train your front-line personnel in the art of saying they are sorry
Often it is the front-line person who must apologize for something that is not his/her fault or has to take the brunt of a customer’s anger. While the customer may be unfairly misplacing his/her hostility, there often is no other place for the anger to go. It is essential that front-line personnel learn to handle an angry situation for which they may not be responsible but still have to fix. Travelers’ anger is rarely aimed at the person, but in most cases is aimed at an unfeasible or unworkable situation. Concentrate on fixing the situation rather than on defending one’s own personal honor. Teach people to state more than simply I am sorry, but also this is what I am going to do about this situation.

Be sensitive to your customers’ time management needs
When tourism stress and customer anger are analyzed the number one annoyance factor is usually involved with a loss of time. Leisure travelers are purchasing experiences that are forms of time. Business travelers may lose clients and money due to delays that cause them to lose time. Thus, the airlines’ hub systems may be efficient from their perspective, but one delayed flight can cause a great deal of anger, frustration, and income loss to those needing to make connections. Sensitivity to other people’s time concerns is an essential part then of a good apology.

Often a simple apology is not enough
While everyone appreciates an apology, simple apologies, especially when they are perceived to be routine and not sincere, are often not enough. Too many tourists and travelers are left holding the bag after being told “thank you for your patience.” Most travelers do not want to hear that they need to be patient. Instead they want precise information on how the problem is going to be handled, what compensation will be given, and who besides them (the person who has been inconvenienced, delayed, or angered) is going to take responsibility for fixing the problem.

Listen attentively to complaints
There is perhaps nothing that angers travelers and tourists more than personnel and employees who simply do not listen. These people may physically hear the words spoken, but their non-sequiturs and defensive manners only serve to worsen the problem. It is bad enough that the mishap occurred; it is doubly worse when front-line personnel seem to be ignoring the problem.

Fulfill all promises made
Often front-line personnel in an attempt to “fix” a problem or to find a way to satisfy and angry customer promise things that simply will not occur. These false promises or misinformation not only exacerbates an already upset customer, but produces a new reason for the customer to be angry. It also makes customers lose faith in the organization or business’ integrity. Be truthful in what you promise and fulfill all promises in a timely manner.

Turn anger into solutions
Do not wait for a customer to demand a solution, offer one and teach all front-line personnel to do the same. In most cases the customer may be so pleased that you offered a solution that the anger or disappointment may turn to appreciation. The best apology is taking a negative situation and not just solving the problem but going beyond a customer’s expectations.

No matter how angry an customer is he/she is still your customer
Often personnel forget that travel is not easy and that it is a human being who is standing on the other side of the counter. We may not be able to fix every problem, but all of us can listen to the problem. Remember no matter what you say or how correct you are, the other person is still your customer.

Dr. Peter E. Tarlow is the President of T&M, a founder of the Texas chapter of TTRA and a popular author and speaker on tourism. He can be reached via the email address tourism@bihs.net.