How to say sorry

When a story about how to apologise hit the news headlines recently, we thought it was time for us to have a look again at the hardest word. We reviewed the original research (that sparked the story) published in the journal of Negotiations and Conflict Management Research. And looked at current service best practices from the public as well as private sectors. Then we asked our team for their psychological, linguistic, voice, legal and service views.

The list below is what we think you should consider when you apologise. If you want to see and hear them applied to some real life examples, take a look at our spoken and written complaints workshops.

1. How and who — think about how much harm was done and the needs of the customer. Then consider how you should apologise: in writing, over the phone or face-to-face. And who should say it: an advisor, team leader, manager or your Chief Executive.

2. Say sorry — just the word may be powerful enough — customers want to know that you care enough to say it. For example: “I’m really sorry that your delivery didn’t arrive when we said it would.”

3. Admit that it went wrong — provide a short summary of what the problem was and say clearly that this was wrong. It’s important that you’re specific to show you understand exactly what has caused any dissatisfaction. You should also acknowledge any knock-on effects of the problem that the customer mentioned. For example: “Your delivery definitely should have arrived the next day. I can see from your email it was very frustrating that you set aside time to receive something that didn’t turn up — especially as you paid extra for next day delivery.”

4. Accept responsibility — for the problem and any harm done.

5. Provide an explanation — say why went things went wrong and that this was not intentional or personal. For example: “Your delivery was part of a consignment that was held up because of exceptionally heavy snow overnight.” If there’s no valid explanation, you could simply say that there’s no excuse for the problem, or that you’ll look into what went wrong.

6. Say why things will be different in future — this may include letting customers know what steps you’re taking to make sure the problem doesn’t happen again. Sometimes customers are just unlucky — our snow-delayed delivery for instance. Here consider explaining that you do keep track of things so that customers feel reassured you have everything under control. And that next time things will be better. For example: “I know this won’t come as much comfort but this happens rarely and 99.8% of our parcels do arrive on time. Your next delivery will get to you next day.” This part of your apology is very important if you want customers to stay and recommend you to others.

7. Make amends — no doubt you’ll have your own rules about what can be offered: compensation, replacement and good will gestures etc. What’s important from a communication point of view is that you clearly state what you’re offering and when the customer can expect to receive this.

8. Say thank you — In a financial services study this year 17% of customers said they would not complain because they feared being penalised. Show that you value the time and effort customers put into their complaint. They’ll also feel reassured that it won’t be held against them. For instance: “Thanks again for getting in touch. We want our service to be spot on every time. But, when things don’t go to plan, your comments give us a valuable opportunity to make amends and stop the same thing happening again.”

9. Be sincere — for your apology to be effective, customers need to believe you mean what you say. Coming across as sincere is as much about the tone you use as the words. And, if you’re face-to-face, body language is vital too.

In the new research we reviewed, ‘acknowledging you were wrong’ and ‘offering to fix the problem’ were the parts of the apology that were most effective. Although the more elements (from 3–7 in our list) that were included, the more effective the apology became.

One final point. We often get asked whether saying sorry makes an organisation liable. In reply our legal beagle points to The Compensation Act of 2006: “An apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty.” And he says that the question of liability is decided by whether there is a duty which has been breached and caused any detriment.

Abbie Mandry