How To Apologize

There is an art to delivering a sincere and effective apology. Whether the issue is related to a security breach, customer service, management, or personal relationships, a true apology can go a long way towards recovering from what might be an otherwise destroyed relationship.

I think it’s safe to say most of us have experienced poor customer service interactions or less than sincere “scripted” responses to problems. Failure to take responsibility and address concerns in a professional, consistent, and honest manner is the fastest way to lose business, customers, and friends.

In most cases, you’re better off making an honest effort to repair the damage. Don’t see it as a matter of pride or losing control; you’re taking charge of the situation and can take pride in doing the right thing. Here are some tips on how to make an effective apology.

When Apologizing, Take Responsibility.

When you take responsibility, really do so. Don’t blame staff, other parties, or “unforeseen circumstances” for what happened. If you’re a manager and one of your employees acted unprofessionally, don’t point the finger at them. If you’re a service provider and some poor third-party applications were to blame, don’t shift blame. Doing so smacks of insincerity and can backfire as well. If you’re a leader, what your team does is ultimately your responsibility.

Communicate, Relate, and Paraphrase.

True communication involves the exchange and establishment of a common understanding of a thing. Communicate to the other party what your understanding of what it is they are upset with, how it has affected them, and what the impact is. And confirm that your assumptions are correct. See future postings about effective communication and means of testing understanding.

In the Apology, State the Solution.

It’s not enough to take responsibility and understand where the other party is coming from. You need to communicate what you will be doing or have done to rectify the situation. This can involve both a short-term and long-term solution. You will again want to make sure that what you’re proposing is truly a fix for the problem from the other party’s perspective.

Consider the Means of Communication when Apologizing.

Different types of communication are appropriate for different circumstances. Consider the gravity of the situation, how the other party might prefer the apology to be delivered or what they might consider as insincere. A phone call or face-to-face meeting might be more appropriate than an email or letter. More than 50% of communication consists of non-verbal queues as well, so be cognizant of body language and eye contact ( as well as potential cultural issues.)

After the Apology, Ask For Feedback.

Asking for feedback at the end of the apology provides a means to again confirm understandings, reinforce sincerity, and provide opportunity to make additional improvements. It also provides an opportunity to follow up in the future to check on th relationship and if the proposed solution has been effective at solving addressing the problem.

Examples of Apologies.

An Example of a Good Apology.

A phone call. “Hi Joe, I am the manager responsible for the help desk staff. My understanding is that we did not treat you in a professional manner last night when you called with a systems problem. I am sorry for that. How you were treated was not appropriate and the team acknowledges that. I’ve ordered a replacement part for you already and had it shipped express to you. Oh, you received it already? That was fast, good to hear. Was it the correct part? I also wanted you to know that we’re reviewing with staff what our expectations are and what we consider to be the appropriate process to address customer issues like the one you’ve experienced, and will be reviewing our process quarterly. We understand that the outage you experienced left your business in a difficult position and we absolutely don’t want to put you through that again. Have we been able to solve the problem, and is there anything else that we should do in the future to help make sure we don’t do this again?”

An Example of a Bad Apology.

An email. “Dear Mr. Anderson, We understand you submitted a complaint that you recently experienced poor customer service and/or were unsatisfied with the resolution of your issue. While we do strive to delight our customers, we do recognize that we can’t make everyone happy all the time. Please know that we are trying to add staff to our help desk, but given the current economy that effort may be delayed. We appreciate your business. In the future, please feel free to call our support desk for help or visit the computer manufacturer’s website directly, and we look forward to serving you. Thank You.”

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  1. I found this information to be excellent. I have been in situations where I have felt I needed an apology from a company and your example of a good apology is what always did the job of making me feel like a valued customer. In those times when I received the flat “between the lines” apologies that things are tough all over, I never cared to deal with that company again even though they did say they were sorry.

    Customer service often seems sadly lacking these days so to see the type of example you have here is refreshing. Thanks Jason.

  2. This is great information for everyone. We’re all in the business of customer service – no matter how much you don’t want to admit it. I may not interact with our customers directly as often as the helpdesk does, my actions directly affect them, and sometimes mistakes need to be answered for.


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