Sorry Not Sorry: A Star Wars Story

A long time ago in a decade far, far away (the 1980s), before apps and the internet, I rang my local cinema to book tickets for the latest Star Wars epic (I think it was Return of the Jedi). Being a blockbuster the line was constantly engaged and in those days, you just kept redialling. Eventually I reached a recorded voice reassuring me that my call would be answered shortly – and so I waited.

Getting increasingly grumpy, after what seemed like an age I was answered by a bright, breezy female voice that completely disarmed me by saying: “Odeon Cinema, thank you for being so patient, how can I help?” Whatever grumpiness I may have had completely disappeared and I’ve never forgotten the experience.

I’ve long contended that when it comes to dealing with customers, we largely make our own luck. When working with customer service teams it’s common to meet a staff member who states categorically (and often with some pride) that “I get all the difficult ones”. Fascinatingly, their colleagues often agree with them – even though they’re all dealing with the same pool of people. When I sit back and observe them in action, I generally find that no, that person isn’t getting ‘all the difficult ones’. They’re just not very good at making their own luck (yet).

Want to make more of your own luck with your customers? Let’s work out what that legendary Cinema Star of yesteryear can teach us.

The Law of Reciprocity really is a Thing. When someone does something nice for us we’re under huge psychological pressure to respond in kind. If we greet someone with a smile and a can-do attitude we vastly increase our chances of being treated the same way. If we approach the next person in the queue – physical, phone or virtual – with tiredness and disinterest, the Law of Reciprocity will tell your customer they’re likely to be in for a battle to get what they want. So they will immediately start to push hard. That’s one major bit of your ‘luck’ you just gave away.

Sorry is incorrectly used every single day. Hands up: who, knowing someone has been waiting to talk to you, would instinctively say “sorry to keep you”? It’s polite enough, but let’s unpick that. Here are some ways ‘sorry’ is commonly used:

  • “Sorry, I think you gave me the wrong change.” (you’re sorry for their mistake?)
  • “Sorry, can I use your bathroom?” (you’re sorry you have a functioning bladder?)
  • “I’m sorry but no, I can’t accept your explanation.” (you’re using ‘sorry’ as a weapon?)

Hardly contextually appropriate, are they? ‘Sorry’ becomes a throwaway verbal tic, devoid of its true meaning. Its currency becomes diminished.

Also, when you say sorry to someone else, social conditioning signals that you’ve been in some way at fault. You’ve just given the other person a step up to the moral high ground – another bit of your luck handed over on a plate.

There’s power in Thank You. What was that my Cinema Star said to me? She thanked me for my patience. Whoa! So now the Law of Reciprocity is urging me to reward her for recognising my virtue. A great result for good manners! In addition, she’s neatly avoided yielding to me the moral high ground. We can stand together as equals in pursuit of the same happy outcome. That’s a little bit more luck safeguarded, then.

Positive language creates positive feelings. Consider the following:

  • “We don’t have that in stock at the moment…”
  • “Sorry, I don’t know….”
  • “I’m not sure, you could try…”
  • “No, I can’t do that for you.”

Wow. They’re pretty underwhelming, right? Here are some positively-worded alternatives that mean EXACTLY the same thing:

  • “Those will be back in stock on Friday. Shall I set aside a dozen for you?”
  • “Great question! Let me find out for you.”
  • “What I recommend is…”
  • “What I can do for you is…”

Customers find positivity reassuring and uplifting. It doesn’t mean over-promising or making up stuff just to please them. It isn’t really even Jedi mind tricks. You’re simply speaking the language of possibilities and ways forward, rather than merely closing doors.

So how to make use of all this? Is it difficult? Not at all. Next time you’re dealing with a customer, colleague or anyone else, be mindful in choosing positive phrasing over the negative. It quickly becomes a habit. Before you know it, you’re mastering the art of being luckier with your customer conversations.

“Your focus determines your reality.” (Qui-Gon Jinn).

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