Sorry Doesn't Need to be the Hardest Word...

There’s a very distinct line in the sand between those who believe a company’s agents should apologize when a customer has an issue, and those who think agents should never apologize under any circumstances. Businesses on both sides of the line are making mistakes.  Even those companies that are on board with apologizing have to be sure they are doing it correctly.


If You Are On the”Never Apologize” Train

Those who are adamantly opposed to apologizing generally say it is because they do not want to admit fault, risk negative social media posts, or even litigation.  Ok, that is understandable to a point -- but you can and should apologize.  It can be done without admitting fault. Some may prefer to call it empathizing.  Call it what you will, when a customer has any type of issue related to your company or product, studies show that the three most important things customers want  are:

1) An apology 

2) Resolution  

3) Follow up (with assurance the problem will not recur) 

Surprisingly, these three things hold nearly equal weight. In the case study by, Adam Ramshaw reports that, at least in the IT industry, closing the loop is just as  important as resolution of the actual problem when it comes to driving customer loyalty and satisfaction.  Also, disarming an angry customer with an apology will decrease the likelihood of negative social media posts,and drastically increases the chance for praise and positive posts.  

I was working with a natural pet food company not long ago and a customer called in with a complaint.  She was livid and literally screaming at the agent about her cat becoming ill from eating one of their products.  She was yelling, making demands about paying the vet bill and suing the company.  This company was not onboard with the idea of apologizing. The agent let her know that a manager would call her back shortly.  I called her personally to illustrate my point with the marketing team.  When I spoke to her, I apologized for the entire incident, empathized that I know she was worried about her cat and it is so scary when our furry “kids” are sick.  As soon as she realized I was listening and understanding the gravity of the situation for her, she calmed down.  I asked her many questions, investigating how it happened and determining why.  In fact, the customer did not store the product as directed and mold occurred (which happens frequently with natural products that are not stored properly), so technically the entire situation was a result of her own negligence.  In the end, I think she realized that it was her own fault, but neither of us said it out loud.  I replaced the product she purchased and threw in a “gift” of a storage container to keep the treats fresh and safe.  Less than 24 hours later she posted a glowing review of the company and its customer service.  She highly recommended the company and said she was a customer for life.  She even noted in her post that she “had a terrible scare with one of the products but they replaced it immediately and took time to talk to me and make me feel better.”  We started with threats to sue and expectations of vet bills being paid and wrapped up with social media praise.  Even though the company and its product were not even at fault, conceding the replacement product and container not only saved the company from spending time and energy fighting back and forth with her and possibly her lawyer for who knows how long, we saved the the likelihood of many negative posts.  “Customer for life”.  Even the most adamantly opposed to apologizing to customers have to see the value in that phrase.  The company has since changed their policy

Take responsibility.  People respect that and don’t get it nearly enough these days.  Assuming customers will then hold that guilt against you is an unlikely and unfair assumption.   Find verbiage that you can live with and use it.  


If You Are Already On Board the Apologizing Train

Congratulations and good for you!  Sorry doesn’t have to be the hardest word.  You have likely already seen the effect on your bottom line if it is something you implemented recently. 

There are businesses that have seen apologizing backfire.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing it, it just means you need to be sure you are doing it the right way!  See the tips below to be sure you use the tool properly. 


Tips for Apologizing Without Admitting Culpability

First, just listen - First and foremost, listen to the customer and let them vent and explain the problem.  No interrupting or turning the blame to the customer. The customer is not the problem, even when they are the problem.  You must see it as your job to anticipate and prevent the issues they may have. 

Empathize sincerely with the actual issue - Let the customer vent and explain the problem completely. Train your agents to recognize the real issue that has the customer angry.  “I am sorry you had to make this call today and take time from your lunch hour, Mr. Brown. Let me clarify what I understand the issue to be so I can get it resolved quickly for you.” More often than not the angry vocal customer is in that state because of the effect not the cause.  They are more angry about the inconvenience than anything. Guaranteed. Even when the customer is at fault for the problem, pointing that out doesn’t work in your company’s favor, ever.  It is still important to apologize to them for having any issue at all.

Find the common ground so they know you understand - Have your agents relay a time when they had a similar problem and they felt the same way.  “I’m sorry your widget arrived broken, Mrs. Smith. I had that happen with XYZ item and I was so disappointed after waiting for it to arrive for what felt like a lifetime!  Let’s get a new widget out to you immediately.”

Apologize for the right reason, in the right way - If your apology includes throwing your vendors or staff under the bus, then you are not really helping.  In fact, that sort of apology ends up making you look bad in the long run.  If you have such a terrible staff member or unreliable vendor then why do I want to trust you with my business in the future?  There is nothing wrong with assuring a customer that you will correct the problem if it regards an employee through training or immediately bring it to your vendor’s attention so they can rectify the problem on their end. 

Assure them this is an unusual thing and that it won’t happen again - Be straight with them, let them know that things happen and that you are sorry.  “This is such an unusual issue! I am so sorry you had to be the one to have it happen, Mrs. Jones.  I appreciate you bringing it to our attention and we’ll get started on fixing it right now!”  Have processes in place to help insure the customer does not have the same experience again.  Hopefully, problems are occasional and you can be confident that this issue  won’t happen again.  Relay that confidence. 

Unless you know it is not unusual! - If there are customer/product issues that you are aware of in your company and are already addressing, be sure to have a system for flagging their account to be handled with special care while you tidy up things on your end. You can relay with confidence that you are on top of it.

Don’t forget to close the loop!  Follow up with each and every complaint, even when you know it has been resolved. This is equally as important as saying you are sorry and resolving the problem. You are two-thirds of the way there, make it a home run!