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 currently the the Social Media and Customer Experience Manager for NumberBarn.com. She has worked at tech startups since 2005. She's the co-founder and regular contributor over at CustomerServiceLife.com. She's a certified health coach, but not the kind that forces you to only eat cardboard and deprive yourself of ice cream. JennyDempseyWellness.com, the company she started, was designed to bring a new type of wellness into the workplace, one that gives you permission to look deeper into yourself, rather than just on the healthy snacks in the break room. She is the mother to a toothless rescue cat named Chompers. Avocados and veggie tacos are the way to her heart. She's also a Hanson fan for life.

5 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!

  • Peter Robertson

    I really do not like to hear “I’m sorry, but we do not have something or other”. What I ‘hear’ is the fact they don’t have the product I want; I am not concerned about the “I’m sorry” part of it. So I will say something like “You have just told me a fact (about the product not being available). How can you be sorry about a fact?”. You are right – the word “sorry” is not used very well.

  • I Find It Difficult Sometimes To Say That Word “Sorry” Cuz Sometimes People Use Abusive Word On U And They Expect U To Still Say That Sorry….So What Do We Do With This Kind Of People

    • Hi Jose, I’m not sure there’s a right or a wrong answer here. I think in most cases, customers just want to do business with you and will appreciate the gesture. But yes there are those who will either assume you were at fault if you said sorry and hold that against you. Or they will cross a line and be abusive. If they are truly being abusive, it’s probably best to escalate the call or get the support of a supervisor in knowing how to deal with the situation.

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