This article was updated on 8/11/2022.
There are about one thousand varieties of insincere apology. There’s the smirking “Sorry if you were offended” apology which blames the person you insulted. There’s the oblique, passive voice “Mistakes were made” apology which admits nothing. Nothing! And there’s the undercutting “If I did something wrong, I’m sorry” apology that doesn’t even accept that something worth being sorry for actually happened.
If you are an otherwise sincere person, your close relationships can probably survive a handful of insincere apologies. Saying “Sorry, Not Sorry” a few times won’t make your mom or your spouse write you off, but when you work in customer support, an insincere apology can really backfire. It can make an angry customer angrier. A “nonpology” can squander the rapport you have worked so hard to build with your customers.
When things go wrong, when you are to blame for a problem or when a customer is rightfully aggrieved, sometimes all you can offer is an apology. That's why it's important to learn to do it right. Here are three tips for writing a heartfelt apology to a customer:
Tip 1: Stop Writing, “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused…”
Let’s say you work in customer support for a cable service provider we’ll call ComFinity. A customer, Susan, uses live chat (at her office) to let you know that her cable at home hasn’t been working since the thunderstorm two days ago, and she’s upset because she missed the season finale of her favorite show, The Voice.
A typical response from the support analyst, David, might go like this: Hello Susan. Thank you for contacting ComFinity Live Chat Support. My name is David. Please give me one moment to review your information. I regret any inconvenience this outage may have caused you, but I'll be more than happy to resolve it for you...
Stop right there! Don’t write an apology like, “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused…” First, “may have” sounds antagonistic. Clearly, this event did cause inconvenience; there’s no “may have” about it. Second, “any” is generic. ComFinity knows what kind of inconvenience is involved when a customer misses a favorite show. Third, we would never say this to a customer in person. If you would never say something to a customer face-to-face, don’t write it. If Susan were complaining about slow response to an outage to a ComFinity employee in the store, that employee would never look Susan in the eye and say, “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused…” so ComFinity should avoid this wording in its chats and emails.
What should you write instead of, “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused…”? One reliable strategy is to name the inconvenience and admit that it happened. Here’s a revised version of the ComFinity response to Susan: Thank you for contacting us about the outage. We’re really sorry about the inconvenience of missing the season finale of The Voice. We would like to do some troubleshooting to solve the problem. Do you have time to do that now or would later this evening work better?
Tip 2: Pair “I’m sorry we...” with “We should have…”
Apologizing to a customer is about taking responsibility for a bad or disappointing thing that’s happened. It’s also about validating the customer’s perspective. It’s OK if you lay it on a bit thick. Sometimes a wronged customer needs a little extra.
One approach to writing your apology is to pair the "I’m sorry" part with mention of what should have happened or what you should have done. Here are a few examples:
I’m sorry we gave you the wrong information about how to update your online account. We should have checked first to see whether you had a Vendor account or a Supplier account.
We’re sorry that you had trouble finding the images you had stored on StockFoto. We should have let you and our other Platinum Package customers know that we were updating our database, so our online library had some glitches yesterday.
I’m sorry we took so long to reply to your request to update your expired VPN certificate, especially because you were at a client’s site, not in your office. We should have gotten back to you within an hour, which is our standard response time.
Tip 3: Follow Your Apology with an Empathy Statement.
A sincere apology earns points with an unhappy customer, and if you follow it with an empathy statement, you earn lots of points. It’s difficult to tell which part soothes the customer more. Is it the apology, in which you take responsibility for the wrongdoing? Or is it the empathy statement, in which you see the situation from the customer’s point of view? No matter. Apology-plus-empathy is the cookies-and-milk of customer care. Here are a few examples of this effective pairing:
I’m sorry you’ve had to contact us four times to request that your email address be removed from our distribution list. I, too, would have expected this task to be taken care of after the first request.
We sincerely apologize that your daughter had to wait two hours for our airport shuttle to arrive. As a parent myself, I would not have been happy that my child was stuck at the airport for a long time.
We’re sorry our software update wasn’t compatible with your laptop’s operating system. I can understand why you want to revert to the previous version.
Say You Are Sorry
Don’t pepper your customer communications with wanton apologies. Don’t say you’re sorry for anything and everything. But when you’ve made a mistake, forced a customer to cope with an inefficient system, caused a delay, or given a customer incorrect information, say you’re sorry. It’s the right thing to do, and it makes your customers trust you.
Leslie O'Flahavan has delivered writing courses for support center staff, customer service agents, and social media managers, helping thousands of professionals hone their customer-focused writing skills. She helps support organizations train agents to write well in all service channels, measure the quality of their writing, and revise and maintain their entire library of canned answers. Leslie is the coauthor of Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents. Visit her E-Write website, follow her on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.