When to Apologize to Customers and How to Do It

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.


Here’s How to Respond to the Yelling or Cursing Customer {with videos}

Operator woman talking on headset at work

Here’s How to Respond to the Yelling or Cursing Customer – Plus More Diplomatic Phrases to Help You Regain Control in 9 Common Situations with Difficult Customers

1. What to say to the yelling or cursing customer

  • “I’m trying to help you, but if you continue to yell and swear, I am going to ask that you call back another time. It’s up to you. You can talk reasonably, or you can call back.”
  • “I’m sorry. It isn’t possible to help while listening to that language. If it stops, I can help.”
  • “If a few minutes helps you calm down before we continue, that would be okay. You can certainly call me back.”
  • “I want to help you, yet the language is getting in the way.”

Note: Your tone is critically important with the above statements. You must come across calm, neutral, and non-threatening.

2. What to say to the customer who wants to speak to a supervisor

  • “I’m sorry you feel you need to talk to someone else, but that’s the reason I’m here. I have been given full authority to help resolve your concerns. May I have the opportunity to address this first?
  • “Please give me a chance to try and fix this for you. That’s why I’m here.”

3. What to say when you cannot honor the request for refund due to consumer error

  • “It is our company policy that we cannot pay a claim that involves consumer error. We have a responsibility to the company to uphold the integrity of our products. When a product performs as expected and has no deficiencies, we cannot take responsibility and accordingly can offer no financial assistance.”
  • “Although you might not agree with my decision, I’d like to explain it so you can at least understand.”
  • “We appreciate hearing about your experience, but we cannot compensate you in this matter because you failed to follow instructions/did not read instructions/misused the product.”

4. What to say to the rambler or storytelling customer

  • Before we hang up I want to be sure to tell you…” This statement psychologically leads the customer toward the end of the conversation.
  • “I don’t want to take up any more of your time so let me give you…” You can make this statement even when the customer has called you.
  • “One last thing I need to tell you….”
  • “I have all the information I need so I’ll now….”
  • “Please help me understand where this conversation is taking us.”

Here’s a short video on how to control calls with ramblers:

5. What to say when you need to convey empathy (to create calm with a demanding customer)

  • “The problem you experienced is no more acceptable to us than it was to you.”
  • “It must have been very frustrating for you to get the Widget home and discover it doesn’t work properly.”
  • “It must seem like these things take forever.”

6. What to say to the customer who wants you to bend the rules 

  • Remember: Today’s exception becomes tomorrow’s expectation
  • Empathize with the customer and at the same time remain neutral

Say something similar to:

  • “to be fair to everyone I must…”
  • “I wish that were possible, but your request is beyond my level of authority. I will, however, check with my manager.

7. What to say when you need a graceful exit

  • “We see this differently, and I am going to have to put more thought into the perspective you have shared with me. It’s helpful for me to understand how you see things. In the meantime, here is what I can do to solve the immediate problem.”
  • “I’m sorry that I have not been able to help you. If you don’t object, I would like to let a colleague/manager of mine attempt to better meet your needs.”

8. What to say to the demanding customer who wants on-the-spot answers

  • Reiterate what you know, what you can do, and what they can expect.
  • Explain, “I don’t want to further disappoint you. I want to be honest about what we can do for you.”
  • Be honest with the customer.
  • Do not let the customer make you give an immediate response.
  • Do not make any promises you can’t keep.

Sample responses:

  • “Your request goes beyond my authority. I will, however, contact the right people and have someone who can help call you back.”
  • “I know you would like an immediate response, and I wish that were possible. This request requires input from other people. I assure you I will locate the appropriate person who will get back in touch with you.”

9. What to say when you want to “safely” apologize

  • “Please accept my sincere apology for any frustration this may have caused you.”
  • “I am sorry for any misunderstanding you may have experienced.”

Download a PDF of Myra’s Phrases so you can share this with your employees.

Now you can give your representatives even more great skills for delivering the best customer experience and for handling difficult customer situations. Sign up for my email list and learn specific tips, approaches, and phrases to help your employees help your customers.