The Art of Apologies

As support and customer success practitioners, we are often in a position to apologize to customers–sometimes for our own blunders or those of our teams, and sometimes for assorted product or service disasters we had no hand in bringing about. So all of us have a lot of practice and magic phrases we rely on when making apologies.

But we can learn from the best, and I mean the excellent Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies, which offers a technique applicable to both personal and business apologies and provides lots of funny stories (and bingo cards!) on how apologies can go very wrong indeed. Inspired by the book, here are some suggestions for making better apologies.

6+1 Steps to a Good Apology

  1. Make sure you actually need an apology. (I added this step to the method prescribed in the book.) Many times when speaking with customers, we find ourselves empathizing for something we or our organization did not do, for instance, “I’m sorry you lost your sysadmin.” It’s completely appropriate to do that, but it is not an apology, just an expression that you are a human and you understand the other human’s pain. If you are empathizing, do not follow the steps below and do not take ownership for the problem.
  2. Say you are sorry. Say “I apologize” or “I’m sorry”; do not hide behind wimpy expressions such as “I regret” or vaguely hint that something went wrong. (I prefer to say “I apologize”, which I think is a stronger statement, but “I’m sorry” is perfectly fine.)
  3. For what you did. Be specific: not “for the inconvenience” but “for making you wait 3 days for an answer.”
  4. State that you understand the impact on the customer. If you are specific enough in step 2, you may already have accomplished that.
  5. Give an explanation, perhaps. It can be useful for the customer to understand how the mistake was made, but be very sure you are not making excuses. For instance, “I was out of the office and I forgot to turn on my auto-response” is fine; “I was out of the office taking a well-deserved break” is not.
  6. Explain what you will do so it won’t happen again. This can be difficult when apologizing on behalf of the organization. For instance, what do you say if the customer hit a vicious bug that corrupted their data? Not “I personally guarantee there will be no more bugs in the product”, obviously, but perhaps “We are adding more use cases to our QA program.”
  7. State what you will do to make it up to them. For instance “We will work with you to fix the corrupted data” or “I will arrange for a complimentary consultation to discuss your migration.”

Assorted Danger Phrases 

We often rely on set phrases when making apologies, and some phrases can lead us astray. Here’s a short list of phrases to avoid.

  • Sorry if. If you are apologizing, someone got hurt, so say you are sorry you caused a problem, not “if we caused any inconvenience”
  • Sorry but. This is not the time to be defensive. “I’m sorry but your contact never gets back to us in a timely manner” is really an accusation about their contact, not an apology.
  • Mistakes were made. Avoid the passive voice: what happened, exactly?
  • I did not mean to. I sure hope you are not actively trying to delay responding to your customers or delivering products you know don’t work–but the customer experienced a delay or a bug nevertheless. Focus on the outcome, not the intention.
  • I feel terrible. Apologies are not about you, they are about the customer!
  • Your business is important to us. Apparently, not important enough to avoid mistakes… And it sounds like a robot crafted this message. Personalize! And keep it short. Good apologies do not ramble.

How do you train your teams to make good apologies? Please share in a comment. (FT Works has a wonderful programs for support and customer success if you need expert help.)