Nobody can make "sorry" sound less genuine than a three-year-old can. Eyes down, body turned away, fists clenched and a foot that could clearly stomp at any moment. Every parent has seen it. Eventually they manage to force out a sound which could be "sorry" or could be just a well-timed burp, but by that point it's not worth dragging it out any further.
As the head of a customer service team, when things go badly wrong they often end up in my inbox. Service interruptions, billing bugs, misread emails, accidental deletions and often just mutual misunderstanding. I've called myself a professional apologiser more than once (though my dislike for quirky job titles is thoroughly documented).
Saying sorry is hard, and apologising to a customer in an effective way can be even trickier. You'll often need to balance the apology with the need to hold firm to certain decisions, or to turn down requests you can’t fulfill.
Why should you apologise?
Some companies don't allow their team members to say sorry because they fear legal consequences of "admitting fault". That sort of attitude is infuriating to a customer who really just wants to hear someone admit their part in a problem.
I recall a study that investigated the rates of legal action taken against medical doctors by upset patients and relatives. The study found that the biggest factor in reducing legal action was encouraging the doctors to candidly admit to their patients when they had made a mistake. A separate study found “people are more than twice as likely to forgive a company that says sorry than one that instead offers them cash”.
Acknowledgement of fault is a powerful thing; it tells the customer "you are right, I see your perspective and I understand it.” It recognises a shared reality with the customer and is the opposite of the defensiveness and denial approach we can often be drawn into.
A genuine apology is a mark of respect and a sign of humanity, two values that are in short supply during most commercial transactions. Pragmatically, an effective apology costs a lot less than a court case or even a refund or discount.
I say an “effective apology" because not every apology does the job. Earlier on in my customer service career I sent a lot of pretty ineffectual apology emails out that said sorry but didn't show sorry.
That, I think, is the root of the correlation between the amount of apologetic language and the decline in customer satisfaction noted in Zendesk's recent customer service report. Using phrases like "sorry for the inconvenience" in isolation makes them pointless at best and more often outright irritating.
How to write an effective customer service apology
I'm talking here about written apologies because that's where I have the most experience. The same concepts will apply to phone calls and in person too, but you have less time to get it right in those channels. Practicing with the written word is a less stressful way to start.
1. Recognise your own emotions
Before you send off your email, give yourself time to understand how you are feeling. Upset customers often use broad and unfair characterisations because they don't think anyone is really listening (Fun fact: I've personally been told more than once that I am ruining Campaign Monitor).
My instinctive first response to that sort of email is often to defend myself, attack the customer's views as wrong and unfair. That doesn't ever help, but letting myself feel that emotion; sometimes even to write it down (not in the ticket -never in the ticket!) gives me the mental space to write a much better response.
2. Make sure you're actually sorry
If you aren't genuinely sorry for at least some part of the problem, then don't apologise. Instead, try listening again to make sure you understand the situation fully. They will know if you are just saying sorry without comprehending why.
3. Validate their feelings
You don't have to agree with everything a customer has said, but they do need to know that you have heard them, and that you acknowledge how they feel.
"I know it has been really frustrating for you to be held up like this when you just want to get your job done"
You can find out a lot more about how to do this if you look up some resources on reflective listening, it's a truly valuable skill in all areas of life.
4. Explain what happened
Write a full explanation of the situation as you understand it, making sure to address all the points the customer has raised. Sharing that explanation of "here's what happened, and what went wrong" is critical; it's the framework that an apology fits into. Without it, any apology risks being meaningless words unsupported by explanation or any change of behaviour.
5. Admit to your mistakes
Whether it was your personal mistake, or the mistake of the company or service or product, explicitly admit to it, again trying to reflect the way your customer has described the problem. It should be a genuine and specific admission.
"You are absolutely right, we should have made that clearer much earlier in the process" or "I can see now that I didn't read your email properly, that's totally my fault"
6. Explain what you'll do differently
Explain clearly what you or the company will do differently next time to avoid this happening again. This part is what takes your customer from "ok, whatever, at least they said sorry" to "Oh, they really do understand why this matters and they're going to fix it".
"We've already added a new monitoring tool that will alert our support team immediately if this happens again, so that we can get on top of it quickly".
7. Leave the conversation open
It's up to the customer whether or not they accept an apology, but you can make sure they know that you are there to listen and help.
"Of course I totally understand if this has been a deal breaker for you, but I want you to know that I'm happy to explain anything in more detail, or to hear from you about any other issues. Just reply to this email and it will come right back to me"
- Make promises you can't keep (For example, never say "This will never happen again" if you can't 100% control that).
- Trivialise or ignore the customer's feelings "Our other customers don't have any problem with this"
- Defend yourself by blaming someone else or minimising the problem
- Over apologise (the word sorry can lose all meaning if you say it enough times).
Apologising honestly and effectively is a super power for customer service folks. It can strengthen your relationship with the customer even beyond it's pre-problem levels. You might even find it helps with your three year old!