Article May 2015

Nail A Great Apology In 5 Simple Steps (Infographic)

Your customer is furious. Maybe the delivery never came, a customer unknowingly bought a lemon from one of your car salesmen, or the moving company showed up four hours late. Whether you are directly responsible or not, it doesn't matter. Your customer isn't happy, and if you want to keep him, you have to apologize. 

Every company, even the greats like Nordstrom (see story below), fail their customers at one time or another. Though customers don’t expect you to always get it right the first time, they do expect that you make it right.

Did you know that only 1 out of 25 unhappy customers will actually tell you? Think of customer complaints as opportunities, not setbacks, to reinforce your relationship with them and improve your business. So, when a customer comes complaining, consider yourself lucky! You have another chance to get it right with a sincere apology.


1. Don't Wait.
Experts recommend that businesses deliver an apology as close to the incident as possible. This gives you a greater chance of resolving the complaint and regaining trust while also minimizing the risk that your customer will vent their frustrations online. 

Apologizing quickly shows your customer you care and are willing to take responsibility for what happened. Studies show that 95% of complaining customers will stay loyal to businesses who resolve their complaints quickly (Lee Resource Inc).

2. Be Sincere.
Nobody wants a phony apology. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is not an apology. It's an insult. You might as well have said, “You are the one that caused the problem, not me.” So, if you can’t be genuine, don’t bother apologizing at all. 

On the other hand, offering a heartfelt apology has the power to diffuse tension and anger while strengthening the bond your customer has with your business.

A fake apology conveys, I don’t know why you’re so upset. You brought this on yourself. But, since you’re making such a scene and customers are staring, I’ll tell you what you want to hear so you’ll go away. 

A sincere apology conveys, I am really sorry this has happened to you. I can explain what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again. I’ll do whatever it takes to make things right and earn back your trust. 

If it's possible to deliver your apology in person or over the phone, do it. Important sentiments can be misconstrued through email or text messages. 

3. Use The Right Words.
If you’re not sure what to say, write it down first and then rehearse your apology with a trusted colleague. This will help you identify words that clearly and accurately express your thoughts and intentions. 

What you say matters, so choose your words wisely.

Acknowledge their feelings. 
Say: “I can see that this is upsetting you,” “I recognize how frustrating this is for you,” or “I’m sorry this happened to you. What can we do to make things right?”

Don’t say: “I understand how you feel.” It will only aggravate the customer more, and you can expect a response like, “You have no idea how I feel.” 

Take ownership.
Say: “I made a mistake” or “We made a mistake.”

Don’t say: “A mistake was made.”

Assure them it will never happen again. 
Say: “I’ve got my team on this as we speak. This is what we’re going to do, so that this doesn’t ever happen again.” 

Don’t say: “I can’t make any promises, but we’ll try our best to fix the problem.”

Don't use "if" or "but."
“I am sorry IF I made a mistake on your order.” “I’m sorry IF our clerk came across rude to you.” “I’m sorry IF we weren’t able to meet your needs.” IF invalidates your customer’s experience and feelings. Obviously, they wouldn’t be standing here yelling at you IF there wasn’t a problem.

Replace IF with, “I am sorry THAT we didn’t get your delivery to you on time.” “I am sorry FOR the impact this has had on you and your family.”

Never use "but." Using the "but" at the end of your apology undermines everything you just expressed. Your customer sees it as an excuse or an attempt to justify your actions. Leave it out.

Last but not least, check your body language. When addressing your customer, make eye contact and smile. Don't cross your arms. Give him your full undivided attention, so he sees that you are listening to him and engaged in the conversation. When you respond, speak slowly and softly. Your calm demeanor can help decrease tension and soften anger. 

4. Take Action. 
Every sincere apology should contain some type of restitution, whether it be a partial or full refund, a free product or service, or a discount for a future purchase. With restitution, you're not only replacing what was broken, lost, or not delivered, you're also paying your customers back for any hassle or inconvenience they experienced as a result of doing business with you. Whatever you do, try to go above and beyond their expectations. This gives you a better chance of restoring trust and winning your customers back.  

Here’s a great example of how one well-known company did just that.

Nordstrom pays customer double for their trouble.
“When I was 3 months pregnant, I had to take a business trip to Chicago. I had one and only one appropriately corporate-looking skirt that I could still fit into with my growing waistline – but I had torn it on my last business trip and it needed to be re-woven.  So I brought it back to where I bought it – Nordstrom in San Francisco – and asked them if they could fix it in time for my business trip in 2 weeks. They indicated that it would be ready by then.  On the day before I left for Chicago, I had received no word from Nordstrom, so I called to find out about my skirt. “Oh no,” said the clerk who answered my call, “That skirt just went to the re-weavers yesterday and won’t be back until next week.” I lost my cool. “I’m 3 months pregnant and that’s the only nice skirt I have that still fits, and I have to go to Chicago tomorrow morning!” I was hysterical!  The clerk responded, “Can you come into the store today? I’ll have a similar skirt in your size waiting for you.” When I arrived at the store, there was a beautiful skirt, wrapped up in tissue paper waiting for me. It fit perfectly! I went back to the sales desk and offered to bring the new skirt back when I returned from my trip, but they refused saying, “Oh no, that skirt is for you, for your inconvenience.” I looked at the price tag on similar skirts hanging on the racks – that skirt cost $198.00.”

Providing outstanding customer service and anticipating and meeting people's needs are Nordstrom's hallmarks. Going the extra mile for their customers is just part of the job and their philosophy, which has been a huge driving force in the company's success for more than 100 years. 

5.  Don't Expect Instant Forgiveness. 
No matter what you do or how hard you try to make things right, your customer may not immediately accept your apology. Give him time and space to deal with it on his own terms. 

When it is appropriate, follow-up by phone, email, or a handwritten letter thanking your customer for letting you know his concerns and allowing you the opportunity to make things right. You should also reassure him that you have made changes to prevent any future mishaps. 

When mistakes happen that negatively impact your customers, it's important to step up and make amends quickly. It's not always easy, but having the courage and discipline to say I'm sorry will not only restore trust but also strengthen many customer relationships.