To Apologize or Not To Apologize

When customers contact you with a problem, do you apologize or do you not? Let’s work through a couple scenarios. In the first scenario you work for a SAAS (Software as a Service) provider and a customer is calling in because their service is impaired. (Impaired is a word I was trained to use instead of outage because it sounds nicer.) After a bit of investigation you discover that one of your engineers tripped over a network cable, causing service to go down for this and many other customers. Upon realizing that this was 100% your company’s fault, do you apologize?

In the second scenario you’re working email for an ecommerce company and a customer contacts you because they haven’t received their package. After a thorough investigation you discover that your company did everything right. The order was received, fulfilled in the warehouse the same day, and the customer was notified of shipment in a timely manner. The problem lies with the shipping company who apparently lost the package somewhere in transit. While your company has some responsibility for the vendors they choose to work with, it’s at least clear that a good portion of the blame falls on the shipping company. Do you say sorry to the customer in this case?

Two Schools of Thought

In my conversations with new clients at FCR about quality, I love to learn about their brand voice and style of communication with customers. Before you tell me your company doesn’t have a brand voice and style, even if it’s not rolled into a thirty slide presentation describing how you speak with customers, (a really cool practice, BTW) I’d argue that there are still some common threads in the way your company speaks with customers.

One thing I’ve discovered is that there’s a broad range of views when it comes to apologizing to customers. On one side of the spectrum we apologize if the customer has been inconvenienced in any way. It’s one way to demonstrate genuine empathy in a difficult situation. When we empathize, we put ourselves in the shoes of our customers. When we feel their pain, sometimes the best word we can come up with is sorry.

On the other side, I’ve spoken to a growing number of clients who prefer not to apologize to customers if they didn’t do anything wrong. If we caused the problem, then we absolutely say sorry, but if the problem is self-inflicted, what good does an apology do? In these cases maybe it makes more sense for a well-trained support professional to take ownership of the situation and walk the customer to a solution.

When Should We Apologize?

I was a initially surprised that everyone wasn’t in perfect agreement about my practice of apologizing to customers in all circumstances. Since that realization I’ve spent some time thinking through my stance on the topic. I’ve come to believe that it’s alright if there’s a variety of approaches but there are some points that ring true across the board:

  • Whatever you do, be consistent. Whether your company’s stance is to apologize for everything or to be more selective, it’s important that you’re consistent. Taking the time to establish a clear voice and style that everyone in the company follows is a better experience for customers. Having some agents that are over the top in their apologies and others that are cold and distant creates an inconsistent experience. Let me know if you’d like to hear more about my prefered voice and style.
  • You can empathize without saying sorry. As I mentioned before, empathy is about being in the customer’s shoes. While apologies can work some of the time, statements like “That’s really stinks” or “I’ve been there and it’s no fun” or “I understand your frustration” can also communicate that you’re right there with the customer and that you understand how they feel. Remember that a sincere tone of voice is just as, if not more important than the words that are spoken.
  • Apologies are no substitute for action. Have you ever had the same issue occur multiple times for the same customer in a short span of time? By the time they’ve heard “Sorry” for the third time they’re likely to say, “Great, I’m glad you’re sorry. Now what are you going to do to keep this from happening again?” Great question, right? Talk is cheap and eventually customers need solutions or they’ll go elsewhere.
  • There are no winners in the blame game. My second scenario is a great example of a customer that was clearly wronged and deserves an apology. One might argue, however, that it’s not the company’s fault but rather that of the shipping vendor. So let’s say you tell the customer, “We did everything right. It’s the shipping company that screwed up.” They’re likely to rebut with, “Well you’re the company I’m doing business with, not the shipping company. It’s YOUR fault!” In my humble opinion, they have a great point. It’s best not to waste energy on blaming others and instead focus our energy on a solution.
  • Check with your legal department on what you can and can’t say. Some would argue that an apology admits liability for a problem. Imagine if your customer’s ecommerce site goes down for a day and they lose thousands of dollars in revenue and you’re the hosting provider. An apology from customer service might compel the customer to sue your company for damages. Chances are the company’s terms of service cover situations like this, but it’s a good idea to check with the legal department.
  • You can be sorry without admitting fault. Going back to the topic of empathy, statements like “I’m sorry to hear that” or “I’m so sorry you’ve had this experience” don’t admit fault. But if the previous point is an issue, find a different way to say it and still demonstrate empathy.

What do you think?

Barring serious objections from the legal department, I have no problems with a good, heartfelt apology to a customer — especially if it’s used to demonstrate empathy. But it’s always essential to back up that apology with a plan of action to solve a problem and prevent future problems. Finally, be sure that whatever you say or don’t say is consistent with the company’s voice and style.

That’s my opinion. What’s yours? I’d love to hear if your company has thought through apologies and what their stance is. Leave a comment below and let me know.

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