How to Say “Sorry” Without Saying Sorry

My colleague recently presented me with this question:

How can we reply to a customer with empathy and still take ownership of the issue, but without actually saying the word “sorry”?

I spun this around in my mind for some time, as I’m definitely a person who apologizes even when you bump into me.

The “sorry habit” is tough to break, but when it comes to customer service, how do we avoid saying this word to frustrated and confused customers? And, should we avoid saying it?

Jessica Breines, Ph.D. says, “sometimes apologies come too easily and too frequently, as when we apologize for things that are clearly not our fault, not in our control, or otherwise unworthy of apology.”

Should we be apologizing for:

  • A confused customer, trying to understand a service for which they just signed up?
  • A customer that purchased the wrong service because they did not read the terms of service?
  • A customer that decided the service doesn’t work for them and cancels?

Some may say, yes, apologize! But others may not agree.

Breines brings up a good point, “I’m sorry” is infamous for its inadequacy. It often seems flippant, insincere, or incomplete, as in “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry, but….”

She continues with “Some argue that a full apology requires many more elements than just those two words, such as acceptance of responsibility, an expression of genuine remorse, an offer to make amends, and an excuse-free explanation.”

Apologizing takes fault ownership of a situation. If there is a trend of confusion for a specific product or service offering, it’s up to management to listen to the feedback and make clarifying adjustments. If a mistake is made by a company, “sorry” can definitely fit into the conversation, but there needs to be more to it than just a simple apology.

While I don’t necessarily think saying sorry is completely off the table and on the “problem” list, I do wonder if a customer is simply confused because they do not understand, should we be accepting responsibility and apologizing?

The more I think of this, the more I believe that saying “sorry” doesn’t help the situation at all. It’s a placeholder and quite possibly a very insincere way of connecting with the customer.

We want the goal to be about empathizing with the customer and offering support, right?

So what can we do instead of saying sorry? 

I’m still ironing this out, but here’s what I’ve found successful thus far:

  • I’m disappointed this happened to you but I want you to know I’m going to do whatever it takes to resolve the situation. 
  • I know this can be confusing. I’m standing by to answer any questions you have and guide you through this process. 
  • This process adds an extra hassle to your already busy day, but I’ve created a customized tutorial video for you to walk you swiftly through it every step of the way. 

Oh, I’m certain there are many more ways to phrase things, and if you have any suggestions, please do send them my way!

I’m finding that the more I think about this for customer service, the more I think about it for my life outside of work. How can I stop apologizing for things that are beyond my control? Does apologizing really make someone feel better if they are the one’s stepping on my shoe?

What are your thoughts on saying sorry to customers? Do you agree or disagree? Share with me in the comments or over on Twitter!

Jenny Dempsey is the Social Media and Customer Experience Manager for NumberBarn.com. With over a decade of customer service experience, Jenny has been recognized through social media channels as a thought leader. She is co-founder and a regular contributor on the Customer Service Life. When she's not helping or singing to customers, she is studying to become an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. Be sure to check out DempseyWellness.org and follow her on social media!

2 comments

  • I think there are really two concepts here. One is the phrase, “I’m sorry.” The other is apologizing. They aren’t always the same.

    There are multiple definitions for the word, “sorry.” It can be used to express regret (an apology) and it can also be used to express sorrow or empathy. If you say to a grieving widow, “I’m sorry for your loss” you aren’t accepting responsibility for killing her husband!

    Words definitely matter. To me, sincerity and authenticity count even more than the words themselves. A robotic and insincere “I’m sorry” never cuts it. A sincere “I’m sorry” can count for a lot.

    • You say it so much better than I did – yes – two different phrases at stake here. And you’re right, saying sorry for a loss isn’t accepting the responsibility! But, like you said, at the end of the day, sincerity and authenticity count the most. No more saying sorry like a robot! Hey, maybe that’s another post 🙂 Thanks for your feedback, Jeff!

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