When to Apologize to Customers and How to Do It
This morning I delivered a workshop in Philadelphia where I introduced my conciliatory customer recovery strategy to a client. The sole purpose of my customer recovery strategy is to completely restore customer confidence and regain goodwill whenever a customer feels wronged. The keystone of my conciliatory strategy is to apologize to customers.
When I explained the “Apologize for the problem” step, a participant in the seminar quickly piped up and said, “I’ll fix the problem, but I am not apologizing for a problem that is not my fault.” Another person agreed, saying “An apology admits fault…why would we want to do that?”
The expressions of these two participants are common and I hear this throughout the country in nearly every seminar I deliver. So, let’s look at their sentiments.
“I’ll fix the problem, but I am not apologizing for a problem that is not my fault.”
Good point. Almost never is the problem the customer service professional is responding to their fault. So why would they need to apologize personally for the problem? I can think of several reasons.
- It’s not about you personally. Of course it’s not your fault. But you are representing your company and you have a responsibility to actively work to regain customer goodwill. A sincere and unreserved apology conveys that you genuinely care about how the customer was treated. This is what it’s about…not you personally.
- Recent research by Sorry Works has found a link between a heartfelt apology from doctors and a drastic reduction in lawsuits and attorney fees. The University of Michigan hospital recently implemented the Sorry Works program and they report that the number of pending cases has dropped and defense attorney fees decreased from $3 million to $1 million annually. (Wojcieszak, 2008) (Sorry Works encourages doctors and hospitals to apologize quickly when mishaps occur and offer a fair settlement upfront to families and their attorneys.)
- Apologizing can increase customer satisfaction. Research by TARP has shown that when an apology is perceived as genuine, customer satisfaction increases 10 – 15%.
- Real companies are getting real results. The Toro Company (lawn mower) has made an apology a part of their product integrity policy and as result they have reduced legal costs per claim by 78%. (Fleming & Asplund, 2007)
- A genuine apology makes customers feel emotionally connected to the company. Gallup research has shown that a genuine apology can actually strengthen a customer’s emotional bond to a company, leaving him or her more emotionally connected than customers who never experienced a problem. (Fleming & Asplund, 2007)
“An apology admits fault…why would we want to do that?”
Actually, an apology doesn’t have to be an admission of fault. And it’s not even about placing blame.
The whole point is to convey that you genuinely care about how the customer was treated and to regain goodwill.
I believe in apologizing to the customer whether the problem they experienced was a result of an act of nature, a third party, or even the customer. It goes without saying that I believe that we must apologize when the problem is the fault of the company.
Here’s how you can apologize when the problem is not the company’s fault:
- “I’m sorry that you had to make this call today.”
- “I’m sorry for any frustration you may have experienced.”
- “I’m sorry for any inconvenience this misunderstanding may have caused you.”
- “I’m sorry, I feel awful about your problem.”
Several years ago I experienced a cancelled flight due to severe weather and ended up having to spend the night in the DFW airport. About a week after my mind-boggling stay in the DFW airport, I got a letter in the mail from the airline that included this apology.
“Although we will never compromise safety for the sake of on-time performance, we sincerely apologize that your travel plans were disrupted.”
Notice that none of these apologies admit fault or pass blame. They are also all “safe” apologies. I encourage you to use one of these apologies today with an unhappy customer.
The bottom line. If your goal is to restore customer confidence and retain more customers, you need to apologize to customers in the wake of any problem, regardless of fault. When you do, you create emotional bonds with customers and build and strengthen customer loyalty.