Keep Clients Happy by Humbly Asking Forgiveness

As Catherine Walker’s Alzheimer’s disease advanced, her daughter Gail Watson tried to balance her mother’s disease and caring for her ailing father. Struggling as caregiver to both her parents, she found Vancouver, BC-based Nurse Next Door, a company that rescues caregivers by providing support to help care for loved ones at home.

Founded in 2001 by John DeHart and Ken Sim, Nurse Next Door was born out of their personal experiences when, seeking a caregiver for their parents, they were repeatedly sent inappropriate candidates. Like many small businesses born out of personal passion, Sim and DeHart’s business has grown rapidly.  But as with any fast-growing business, growing pains occur. So DeHart and Sim decided that when mistakes happen, they would send a sincere and heartfelt apology, explaining what went wrong, how they will resolve the situation, and humbly asking forgiveness.

Humble Pie

How $1,500 Spent on “Humble Pies” Saved $100,000 in Business

When they slip up, Nurse Next Door sends a freshly baked pie as part of their apology. Not any old pie—they send a humble pie, with a note that says, “We are very humbled by our mistake and sincerely apologize for the poor service.” They depend on a few local bakers in Vancouver to supply the pies, the most notable of which is an outfit called Acme Humble Pie. Sim and DeHart say, “What’s wrong with eating a little humble pie?” Especially when a customer is at stake?

Decide to Say “Sorry”

Gail Watson, whose story we began with at the top of this blog, received one of those pies after Nurse Next Door missed her initial appointment. Though she was angry at first, the swift delivery of a heartfelt apology and the whimsy and humility of this simple gesture took the edge off. Watson remains a loyal customer today.

What started as a spontaneous gesture by one employee is now a regular part of how Nurse Next Door nurses customers’ wounds from the occasional service failure. DeHart estimates that yearly, Nurse Next Door spends about $1,500 on humble pies, but saves around $100,000 in sales. “It’s more about keeping clients than a question of whose fault it is. The value of lost clients is very high,” DeHart says. “And satisfied customers share their experience with friends and family.”

Since its early years, Nurse Next Door has thrived and grown to become British Columbia’s largest home health-care company. It’s likely that their much-talked-about services fuel their growth . . . or do people just want a piece of that pie?

Go Try This

Evaluate How Well You Say “Sorry”

  • How would you rate your ability to identify and acknowledge mistakes?
  • How would your customers say you are doing?
  • Do customers rave about your humility and recovery from mistakes?
  • How do your decisions to recover from mistakes compare with this beloved company?
  • Do your apologies earn you “beloved” status?

Can You Decide to Say “Sorry”?

  • What’s your version of “humble pie”?
  • Are you open enough to consider that there are times when you’ll need one, and proactively go out there and find a baker to make them?
  • What’s one way to earn back a customer’s trust when you occasionally slip up?

Jeanne Bliss Jeanne Bliss is the founder of CustomerBLISS; a consulting and coaching company helping corporations connect their efforts to yield improved customer growth. Her best-selling books are; Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action and I Love You More than My Dog: Five Decisions for Extreme Customer Loyalty in Good Times and Bad.

17 Reactions
  1. Interesting tactic but at about $20 per pie, that’s 75 mistakes. I wonder what those mistakes were and over what time frame – and what they are doing about reducing repeat offenses. After all, sending one pie is nice but sending more than one pie to the same customer is motivating for the customer to find a better solution for home care and their own baker.

  2. Humble pie! What a great concept. Thanks for sharing this as it gets me thinking about my approach to my customers.

  3. Thanks for sharing this story, Jeanne.

    It’s a great example of how going the extra mile, and providing the unexpected can go a long way.

    The Franchise King

  4. For me the biggest part isn’t the apology or the pie, it’s the understanding of what went wrong and what they’ll do to remedy the error. I personally just want to know that I’ve been heard and how they intend to fix it.

  5. Good Morning

    All of these points are so well made and I thank you for them.

    The genesis of this idea is to address, Robert, what you have brought up — which is to have a reliable way to know when service failures occur and to make sure that there is a way to mend the broken service covenant between customer and company.

    The pie comes in as you bring up Joel and Lynda, as an extra “touch”- the human connection that is often lacking. I mean how many of us have received those shallow sounding apology letters that you swear some machine runs off on auto pilot. Especially as small businesses, creating that personal connection is so key — and is what people really are drawn to.

    But Pat, as you mentioned, this has got to end up creating a better, more reliable customer experience. Making mistakes are valuable because they drive improvement. Nurse Next Door has used these experiences to get better and better and they have been rewarded with constant growth year over year. They are now one of the top home health care companies in BC.


  6. I love reading your posts, Jeanne! Another great local merchant story that has helped me in my work with small local companies. I know and respect Robert and value his thoughts here. My question, my thought from his and Pat’s comment is, “In many of these cases, do you think it is possible for there to be less of a problem in the company and just a demanding customer base with very unique needs and expectations?”

    What I mean by that is — customer expectations can sometimes be out of line with reality. The customer is not always right. The company may be doing what’s right in many of the “75 cases” where they had to send a pie, but simply chooses to err on the side of goodwill.

    The Nurse Next Door process may not be broken. Indeed, it is important to look for patterns, but in many situations where I’ve been involved in helping local merchants – it is less about the company and more about an unreasonable customer with an entitlement problem.

    There are lots of people who just love to complain or get upset at the smallest of infractions. You can’t make ALL of them happy and you can’t build a process to make all of theme happy. It’s just life. I still advise the merchant to do as NND has done and eat humble pie and be a diplomat, take the high road, serve the customer and try to help them feel more satisfied. I think Nurse Next Door provides a fine example of commitment and caring for customers.

  7. Hi TJ,
    The beauty in the NND example is that they are making the choices on when the humble pie is the best route–when the emotional connection has been severed and is in need of repair.

    Customers are more in a mode these days to “have their dukes up” when dealing with every size company– so I do know exactly what you mean in that people are more open about venting. The most important thing any time a customer feels uncomfortable is empathy. Offering a listening ear, being patient to hear their story, and then play it back. So many companies don’t even take the time to listen. Now that’s a skill I think we should screen for first in front line folks.

    These touches such as Nurse Next Door does, by the way, are as much for the benefit of employees as it is for the benefit of customers. These gestures give our folks the behaviors to emulate — and set the core values of the company in actions, rather than pumped up slogans and banners.

    So glad you are enjoying these — we’ll keep ’em coming!


  8. I think this post is about seeing the “bigger picture” when it comes to retaining clients. The pie IS a nice niche for this company when they make mistakes. It’s kinda like a trademark in some sense. It goes with that Hollywood saying, “bad publicity is good publicity”!

  9. “I’m Sorry” is two of the most powerful words we can say.

  10. Ryan,
    Thanks so much for making your point. The hardest thing for companies to do is to a) recognize that they make mistakes, b) be on the lookout for them and c) realize and plan to make amending the mistake an opportunity! NND has become known for the pie, but more so for their humility and the human kindness they deliver. That’s what grows their business.

  11. Scott,
    Another great point. In my research in writing “I Love You More than My Dog” what was astounding were the number of companies who were fearful of saying those words for fear of the legal implication of saying those words. The great news is that the delivery of those words, especially in certain industries actually decreased lawsuits! Toro lawnmower manufacturing company hasn’t been to litigation for over 10 years because they begin with “we’re so sorry” and then move on from there. In health care, an industry perennially plagued and stymied by fear of legal retribution has seen “saying sorry” reduce lawsuits by staggering numbers. The University of Michigan healthcare system, for example, saw their claims decline over 43%. Moral of the story; a cup of coffee, human interaction and talking as people trumps the legal system in many instances!

  12. I love the conversation our humble pies have created – some really great points on the value of customer service. Jeanne hit the point really well when she said we use the pie as a way to apologize when we know the emotional connection may have been severed. This is the point where we know we’ve done a major disservice and need to make up for it.

    It has had tremendous value in not only retaining clients but also showcasing systemic problems and issues that need to be addressed. Whenever a pie is sent we know we’ve made a pretty serious error and it ensures attention is brought to it right away. A calculation was made above about a pie costing about $20. We usually use pies that cost about $100. They are about 3 times the size of a normal apple pie, come in a big collectible wooden crate and have individual apology messages on every scrap piece of packing paper in the box. This is the WOW factor for our clients but also makes it painful to send too many pies.

    Looking forward to reading other comments!

    Arif Abdulla (Director of Marketing @ Nurse Next Door)

  13. I think the idea is great, but there’s one issue that is often overlooked by companies and that is usually what got you into trouble in the first place. The company didn’t really take the customer into account. I’ve been “wowed” when checking into a high-end hotel by being given a warm chocolate chip cookie at the front desk. I’d been struggling with weight issues and had been good all day long. Eating that cookie ruined my diet day and made me feel remorseful. I gave the cookie back with one bite out of it. I told them I’d rather have a choice. I’d have taken an apple and been happy, but a warm cookie made me sad.

    The humble pie sounds great, but think of a person who’s extremely health conscious and how they’d feel getting such a rich, cholesterol-laden “heart attack” in a pie pan… What does a single person do with such a thing?

    Some people would rather have the apples… Perhaps a call offering a choice or something else potentially less harmful?

    One thing I’m really big on is asking customers how they want things and then working hard to do just what they want.

    I don’t wait to make a mistake before I tell my customers that I love them and I depend on them and I appreciate them. I believe you give the toaster to the loyal customer.

    One thing that I do with diligence and that is to analyze each mistake and evaluate the process that caused it to see where the process has failed and then take appropriate steps to change or refine the process. I then contact the customer and explain what happened, how it happened and what we’ve done to see that it doesn’t happen again. I’ve found that people seem happier with this than anything else I could do.

    Best Wishes,

    Becky W.

  14. Arif,
    The case study about NND from my book is one that people always love when I talk about it in speeches! So THANK YOU for having such a great practice.

    And thank you so much for reaching out and joining our conversation. The fact that you are “listening” for mentions of NND and joining the conversation shows the kind of company you are as well.

  15. Becky,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. The calorie part aside (I always bring these goodies home to my husband) — the biggest point you made is customer listening and really understanding.

    I’d like to ask Arif to jump in here to see if they’ve gotten any type of adverse reaction to the pies.

  16. I loved the idea of this – it reminds me that customer service isn’t totally dead. The acknowledgement of the error through the humble pie adds an element of family too as most of us relate pie to grandma or our mom. Brilliant.

    (I linked to this article in my blog too).

  17. I recently opted for the health care service from M&Y Care LLC in West Bloomfield, Michigan. It was a very good experience and will recommend to others also.