Small Talk and Trust

by Colin Shaw on May 28, 2014

Why Apologizing for The Rain Makes People Trust You More. 

According to a new study by the researchers at Harvard Business School and Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, apologizing for the rain can be a way to get perfect strangers to loan you their mobile phone. I wonder, should organizations have customer-facing employees “apologize for the rain” to have better experience for customers?

What is Apologizing for The Rain?

The study I am referring to involved having an actor go up to 65 strangers at a train station with the objective to ask to borrow their phone. In half of the interactions, he started with an apology about the rain as in, “I’m sorry about the rain!”, as if he had something to do with it. Apparently, that apology was more effective in getting people to loan him their phone, resulting in a 47% positive response over a 9% response rate when he didn’t preface his request with an apology for the rain.

The article does point out that the apology itself may not have been the catalyst for success, however, since the second group didn’t have another neutral statement given before the actor made his request. The authors of the article point out that it could have just been the small talk aspect of the apology that put the strangers at ease. In this way, I equate the “apology for the rain” as an icebreaker or small talk to ease into a conversation.

To me, the fact that the apology first was more successful is logical. Small talk does put you at ease. If you begin to relate to a person on a small talk level, isn’t that nearly always a gateway to a deeper level of interaction? Isn’t that in many ways how most relationships get started at some point? I would say that when the actor “apologized for the rain” to a stranger, it was a way that he was initiating an exchange with the stranger, like a pick up line in a sense. Only instead of his or her number and a chance to go for a drink, he simply wanted to borrow their phone.

What Are The Implications for The Customer Experience?

Having good people skills is essential for your customer facing employees. They need to be able to put customers at ease and manage the emotions of the exchange. We call this emotional intelligence and “apologizing for the rain” is in many ways a tactic that one can use to demonstrate a high aptitude in this area. I often use this tactic with my wife, Lorraine.

I have said before that she and I have few confrontations in our marriage because we are very good at communicating with each other. One skill I have picked up in 25 years of marriage is that I should always apologize for the rain when she is feeling upset. Lorraine knows that I am not responsible for whatever the rain is in her life, but to her, it’s a signal that I know she is upset and that I’m sorry she feels that way. Likewise, she will do the same for me. We avoid a lot of miscommunications by employing this tactic with each other.

The truth is that your customers are often arriving at your experience feeling certain emotions, which are not always positive. They could be scared, stressed, in some cases hurt, in still others angry. When your organization first interacts with them, acknowledging how they feel and “apologizing for the rain” is a great way to get the customer experience journey started off on the right foot. Chances are if you have hired the right team to handle your customer interaction, this will come naturally to them anyway.

Small talk is an effective way for organizations to help put their customers at ease, to get them to be amenable to resolving the situation in the case where the customer is experiencing some “rain.” Apologizing for it can be the difference it takes to “use their mobile phone.”

Small Talk and Trust by Colin Shaw

Colin Shaw is founder & CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin has been recognized by LinkedIn as one of the top 150 Business Influencers in the world.  He is an international author of four best-selling books on Customer Experience. Colin’s company, Beyond Philosophy provide consulting, specialised research & training from our Global Headquarters in Tampa, Florida, USA.

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