Sam Dunn: We want an apology. We get an internal audit

When any boyhood prank used to go wrong, I would swiftly put into practice a lesson learned early in life from my parents: saying sorry doesn't cost much.

Whether it was a snowball pitched straight into a stranger's face or a stone through a car window (don't ask), an apology - expressed with sincerity - went a long way towards making amends.

Saying sorry is one of life's simplest, most effective and rewarding ways to put right a wrong.

Sad to say, then, that in the prickly heat of a breakdown in customer relations, most businesses appear unaware of the difference an apology can make.

If anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, every corner of the retail sector is full of insensitive, boorish staff. Top-notch customer service is the exception rather than the rule, and most consumers will express astonishment at receiving gold-plated, rather than merely adequate, service.

I wish I had a pound for every time a friend, relative or colleague has recounted a tale of how they were refused compensation for a faulty product or poor service - the delivery they'd taken time off work to wait in for, which never showed up; the customer services department that failed to return their calls; or the mis-selling that ended without an apology.

This lack of good corporate manners is shameful, and never more so than when it takes place on a large scale.

It won't have escaped the notice of regular readers of these pages that the Financial Services Authority (FSA) has been particularly busy since the summer.

The City regulator has found a number of financial services companies guilty of poor practice. Culprits include the independent financial adviser Langtons (fined £63,000 for serious shortcomings over staff training); the Carphone Warehouse (£245,000 for not treating its insurance telesales customers fairly); and Braemar Financial Planning (£182,000 for failings in its sales process involving the high-risk practice of "pensions unlocking").

In all these and other cases, the FSA has acted in the best interests of consumers, exposing unacceptable behaviour in the financial services industry. Yet few of the companies concerned have bothered to publicly apologise or properly acknowledge that they made a mistake.

Most comments - when any are made - smack of vapid corporate mumblings.

The latest fine from the regulator (see News, opposite) prompted a typical reaction. Here's an abridged version of what Loans.co.uk - owned by the credit card company MBNA - said after the FSA's verdict:

"[We are] committed to providing customers with a high level of service ... We co-operated fully with the FSA and undertook an internal audit review to ensure effective and timely resolution of the issues identified."

Nope, I can't see a sorry either.

Companies are missing a trick: acknowledging failures as well as successes can win new customers and reassure existing ones. Will they ever learn?

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