Mark recently sent a "Things I Think I Think" about Responsible Language and that got me thinking.  (It's possible this has already been discussed or otherwise covered but I've missed it.  If this is the case, feel free to redirect me to the appropriate area.)

I have no problem owning up and taking complete responsibility for things I mess up but it sticks in my craw to take responsibility for things over which I had little or no authority to impact the results. 

BLUFish: is it wrong/inappropriate to both identify the root cause of a situation while still taking responsibility for fixing the situation?

The example that bugged me the most was where the flight attendant said "They stocked the white wine on the wrong side of the galley" and the suggested language was "I'm sorry, I overlooked the wine earlier. I've found it; would you like some?"  I'd be inclined to combine the two: "I'm sorry - they stocked the white wine on the wrong side of the galley and I just found the wine; would you like some?"

If there are standards in which the Galley Stock Associate is to load items in a particular manner, in specific locations, so that the white wine is always on the left, it's pretty obvious that the Galley Stock Associate blew it.  If someone said to me "I overlooked the wine" I would think they were a complete nimrod, quite honestly.  The baseline assumption is that "I looked in the [entire] galley and we were out" so when we whiz past the fact that there was a fundamental flaw in the standard operating procedures, the person (me, the flight attendant, Mark, anyone) uses the absolutely most generic responsibility language possible, it's quite easy to make situations worse. 

If I sat in Mark's seat and watched the flight attendant rattle off the "responsible but neutral language" I would think that FA was completely unqualified - doesn't know how to look for a beverage, doesn't know how to operate the freakin' coffee pot. 

When you tell me that someone "moved your cheese" and that there "may have been a hardware malfunction" while still taking responsibility for seeing to my needs / resolving the problem, I cut the person quite a bit more slack and feel pleasantly attended to - instead of irritated that I got stuck with an FA who couldn't find his way out of a wet paper sack.  

I believe this may be a case of stubborn pride on my part - the intense drive to protect my reputation (ie., I care a bit too much what others think of me.)  So I suppose I'm asking: is it wrong to do both - identify the root cause while still taking responsibility for remedying the situation?

melissas's picture

In all my years of customer service, I've never gone wrong taking full responsibility ... whether someone else messed up or not. It takes a lot of guts to take full responsibility for everything that happened leading up to a current interaction and people notice.

When you are in service to another person, whether a customer, a peer, or a boss, -like it or not- everything that happened before you is your responsibility. "I apologize that your expectations were not met" is such a classy thing to say until you go and tack on " was someone else's fault."
The passenger who asked for wine doesn't care where the wine is stored, or who did it. As the server, is it not my responsibility to locate the wine? So sorry that my job was made harder by someone else. It's hardly fair to dump that negativity onto the passenger when it's the Galley Stock Associate who did it.
Understand that simply apologizing doesn't have to be an admission of personal failure. The apology isn't about you personally, it's about the organization/process/team which you are representing. You're the front man. It sucks, but someone's gotta do it. In the face of a failure, to say "I" instead of "they" has so much power, more often than not you gain respect for standing up to the task.


stephenbooth_uk's picture

 Reading Mark's mail I had similar concerns to those expressed by Ashdenver.  My concerns stemmed very much from observing the accelerating trend to separate responsibility and accountability from authority (in it's broadest possible sense, not just 'Role Power').  This has been a problem for as long as I can remember, and I'm sure much longer, but seems to have gotten worse in recent years.  By taking responsibility for things outside your control you are enabling and promoting this process.  You also risk being held accountable for things outside your control.  The three events Mark describes didn't happen to him, they are ones he observed.  The flight attendant's supervisor (or a colleague who would report back to the supervisor) could also have observed them.  From what the flight attendant actually said the message I would take away, as a supervisor, is that some of the procedures may need reviewing and there may be some equipment issues.  From what was suggested he should have said I would take away that he's incompetent and doesn't airline policies.

The problem does seem to finally be getting some recognition.  I recently watched a Vodcast by Janice Fraser (CEO of Adaptive path), part of the Deloitte Leadership Academy, in which she talks about the positive impact of aligning responsibility and accountability with authority.  Yesterday afternoon I attended a briefing at work where the senior management identified that a number of the problems we've been having of late, which have harmed our ability to serve our customers in a timely manner and so hit our profits, were down to a separation between the responsibility for delivery and the authority to make delivery.  Even here on MT there was a recent blog post from Wendii on the problems faced by recruitment consultants who have to constantly refer decisions to their manager.



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ashdenver's picture



thebeezer's picture
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I will add that there is a difference between clarifying the root cause and blaming others.  Consider the difference between the following statements:

  • "I'm sorry - they stocked the white wine on the wrong side of the galley and I just found the wine; would you like some?"
  • "I'm sorry - the wine was on a different side of the galley and I just found the wine;  would you like some?"

The first statement points the finger at the euphemistic "they".  Unless you're going to drag the person that screwed up in front of the customer so they can take responsibility for their mistake, what purpose does this serve?  And if you're not going to do this, what is the customer supposed to do with this information?  How can you represent the company yet stand apart from it at the same time? 

Furthermore, from the company's perspective, I'd rather the customer felt like the company was good but the employee was lousy rather than the reverse!  So clearly this statement does not serve the company's interests at all.  The outcome for the customer is the same.  Why should they feel better being told someone else made an error?  And why should they believe you? 

The second statement lets the customer know what happened, takes responsibility for the EFFECT, and offers to take steps to rectify the effect for the customer.  It doesn't separate you from the company you represent and maintains the focus on the customer, where it should remain. 

Like melissas, I've been in customer service for many years and I have never gone wrong accepting responsibility for the negative effects my customers experienced - whether in my control or not.  I recommend resisting the urge to talk about causes with customers as a general rule.