Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word
I just got a new car. Finally. It’s not that I was in a rush, but the lease was up and it was time to downsize from the mom van anyway. I say “finally” because once I made the decision and selected the new car, the process of actually driving away with it took a while. It was a couple of days for the car I wanted to arrive at the lot. Understandable and not a problem. Once the car was delivered, I made an appointment to collect it but the paperwork wasn’t ready when I got there. I made a second appointment the next day, but this time the keys had not yet been programmed. Twice I made a trek out to the dealership, waited around for over an hour, and then left disappointed. Like anyone else, I have shit to do and I don’t like it when people waste my time. As someone who alphabetizes the spice drawer and labels sheet sets in the cupboard, I also cannot abide incompetence and inefficiency in others. After trying and failing to connect with my car salesman by telephone (he didn’t call me back), I sent an email outlining my complaint (he didn’t respond). After a second email, the salesman responded by advising that he was going to give me an extra key by way of apology. Whoop dee doo.
Finally, on the third day, the car was ready. The paperwork was waiting for my signature and the keys were good to go. One of the car jockeys took me out to the car and spent about 20 minutes explaining the car’s various knobs and whistles: heated steering wheel! heated wiper blades! finished basement! As I am about to drive away he tells me that head office will be emailing me a customer service questionnaire and would I please make sure to rank the dealership with a 10 for every question. “What cheek!” I say to myself. I can’t imagine ever asking a customer to write us a 5 star review on TripAdvisor or Yelp. That just, well, skeezy. “Why do I have to give you a 10?” I ask, “what if I want to rank something a 9?” (Or maybe a zero, I think to myself.) “Well”, he says, “if you don’t give us a 10 in everything, head office will send someone down here. As far as head office is concerned, if you don’t give us a perfect rating, you might as well have given us a failing grade.” I guess for head office, like Ricky Bobby, if you’re not first you’re last.
I am reminded of an incident at the restaurant recently when I had occasion to apologize to someone. A party of four arrived at 8 o’clock on a slamming Saturday night. Unfortunately, I didn’t have their name in the reservation book. One of the guests showed me the email correspondence between herself and my husband, confirming the reservation for that evening. My husband had forgotten to write it in the reservation book. Oops. Big fucking oops. I didn’t have a table. I apologized profusely. I explained what had happened and apologized again. I told them that they could have the next available table, hating to contemplate what kind of shit show I was creating for myself and subsequent reservations. But no customers seemed to be moving. Even parties that had already paid their bill were camping out. I finally asked some customers if I could move them to the bar for their coffees so I could have the table. I explained to them the mistake we had made with the reservation book. Fortunately, these folks were regulars and were very sympathetic. They actually apologized for lingering over their dessert, then paid their bill and left. We quickly reset the table and sat our unexpected guests, about 25 minutes after they had arrived.
So, our guests waited 25 minutes for a table. I felt terrible, and apologized to them frequently, sincerely, and profusely. I promised that we would make certain to take their orders and prepare their food promptly. They seemed fine after that. They appeared to enjoy their meals and each other’s’ company, and were polite and appreciative. A later party called to cancel a reservation so we wouldn’t be short a table after all. It seemed that we had dodged a bullet and I could breathe again. Our surprise guests were seated, served and paid their bill in 1 hour and 15 minutes. I know, because I have a copy of the kitchen chit and the credit card slip. I don’t know if you can get away faster at a Swiss Chalet.
When the bill came, our surprise guests lost their minds. Why were they getting a bill at all? Why wasn’t their dinner free? We should at least have bought their dessert. (They didn’t order dessert.) So they yelled at their server and said the service was terrible and slow. They left no tip. Then they yelled at me when I came to the server’s defence and explained that their food had been ordered, cooked, served and eaten in just over an hour. I apologized again for our mistake in not having their reservation, but explained it wasn’t the server’s fault. I explained that, in fact, we had made sure that they jumped the queue in the kitchen so they wouldn’t have to wait. I apologized again. Every time they raised their voices and complained, every time they flapped away my apology, every time they insulted the server, me, or my husband, my apologies became less and less sincere until I just shut my mouth and started clearing their table.
How do you rationalize a free meal because you waited 25 minutes for your reservation? I’ve waited longer for a bus, in the rain, without yelling at the bus driver. I’ve waited an hour in line for a rollercoaster ride that takes 2 minutes, without peeling a strip off anyone. I’ve sat in doctors’ offices for hours and waited forever in emergency rooms without going postal. What about waiting on a runway for your plane to take off? Or in the line at any government office? Or wasting your time at car dealerships? Does anyone offer you anything for free? Do you even get an apology?
The car dealership gave me a free key by way of apology for my inconvenience. A key that I didn’t ask for and don’t need. Car keys aren’t cheap, mind you, with replacement keys costing in the low hundreds of dollars. Even still, that’s less than half of one percent of the value of my car. I’m not asking for my car for free, because that would be stupid, but why is it any less stupid than expecting a free meal? It’s all relative. In the restaurant scenario, if I were going to offer compensation equivalent to the value of a car key, it would be akin to my giving a free wedge of lemon or packet of sugar, not a free meal.
When and why did free stuff take the place of a genuine and heartfelt apology? Free stuff is not an apology it’s a BRIBE. What is the incentive for decent manners, compassionate understanding, sincere apologies, and freely-given forgiveness when all that is really required is a bribe? There is a name for someone who can be bought. What does it say about you when you can be bought for the price of piece of cake or a cocktail? I didn’t want a free car key, I wanted the car dealership to acknowledge my worth, which has no price. Why would anyone else settle for less?