No apology is less genuine than one that’s been coerced from a three-year-old: eyes down, body turned away, fists clenched, and feet threatening to stomp.
Eventually, they manage to force out a sound that could be interpreted as “sorry,” but there’s almost certainly no remorse behind it.
As adults, we learn how to offer a more mature apology that includes less foot-stomping. But giving a genuine, effective apology is still hard work! It’s particularly difficult in customer service, where there’s often a need to apologize while holding firm to your decision or turning down requests you can’t fulfill.
If you can apologize to customers effectively, you can turn around a bad situation. However, if you can’t apologize genuinely, your customers will be left to assume that you just don’t care.
Why should you apologize to customers?
Some companies don’t allow their team members to say “I’m sorry” because they fear the legal consequences of admitting fault. That sort of attitude is infuriating to a customer who wants to hear someone take ownership of the issue.
In a New York Times article that looked at the rates of legal action taken against medical doctors by upset patients and relatives, studies found that the biggest factor in reducing legal action was encouraging the doctors to candidly admit to their patients when they had made a mistake.
A separate study found “people are more than twice as likely to forgive a company that says sorry than one that instead offers them cash.”
Acknowledgment of fault is a powerful act; it tells the customer “You are right, I see your perspective, and I understand it.” It recognizes a shared reality with the customer. It’s the opposite of the “defend and deny” approach that’s tempting to fall into.
It also helps that an effective apology costs a lot less than a court case or even a refund or discount. (“Effective” is the key word, because not every apology hits the mark. “Sorry for any inconvenience” is a phrase which now means almost the exact opposite of the words it contains.)
How to apologize to a customer
The examples below are of written apologies, which we love because an email or letter gives you more time to consider and modify your response, but the same concepts apply on the phone or in person. Here are five important aspects of an apology to a customer:
1. Be truly sorry
If you aren’t genuinely sorry for at least some part of the problem, then don’t apologize. Instead, ask questions and listen again to make sure you truly understand the situation.
Upset customers can be aggressive or extreme, perhaps because they don’t think anyone is really listening, and they can tell when you’re saying sorry without comprehending why.
Before you respond, give yourself time (and maybe a walk around the block) to understand how you are feeling, too.
My gut response can be to defend myself and try to attack the customer’s views as wrong and unfair. That doesn’t ever help, but letting myself feel that emotion, and sometimes even writing it down (not in the email — never in the email!), gives me the mental space to write a much better response.
2. Validate your customer’s feelings
You don’t have to agree with everything a customer has said, but they do need to know that you have heard them and that you acknowledge how they feel. Here are a few phrases you can include in your response to validate your customer’s feelings:
“I know it has been really frustrating for you to be held up like this when you just want to get your job done.”
“I understand how this has impacted your workflow. I’d be upset, too.”
“You’re right.” (Yep, just those two words can help de-escalate the situation.)
Investigate reflective listening; it’s a valuable skill at work and at home.
3. Explain what happened
Write a full explanation of the situation as you understand it, making sure to address all the points the customer has raised. You can probably provide information that the customer may not have access to that explains where things broke down and what the consequences were.
Only when you have validated your customer’s feelings and given them a clear explanation of what happened does your apology have a chance to be accepted as genuine.
Note that you’re not just making excuses. You aren’t trying to get the customer to cut you some slack. Instead of being defensive, you’re being transparent by stating exactly what happened.
4. Admit to your mistakes
Whether it was your personal mistake or the mistake of the company, service, or product, explicitly admit to it. Be specific about what you’re apologizing for, and use the same phrases and words that your customer used. It should be a genuine and specific admission.
“You are absolutely right; we should have made that clearer much earlier in the process.”
“I can see now that I didn’t read your email properly, and that’s totally my fault.”
Owning your mistake is an important step in making things right with the customer and in ensuring they don’t think you’re blaming them for the problem.
5. Explain what you’ll do differently
Explain clearly what you or the company will do differently next time to avoid this happening again. This is your chance to show a commitment to improvement and to start rebuilding customer confidence. Not only that, but it gives you a chance to prevent other customers from having the same bad experience.
“We’ve already added a new monitoring tool that will alert our Support team immediately if this happens again so that we can get on top of it quickly.”
“I totally understand if this has been a deal-breaker for you, but I want you to know that I’m happy to explain anything in more detail or to hear from you about any other issues. Just reply to this email and it will come right back to me.”
It’s up to the customer whether or not they accept your apology, but you should make sure they know that you are there to listen and help.
How not to apologize
There are a few things that you should not include in an apology:
Don’t make promises you can’t keep (e.g., don’t say “This will never happen again” if you can’t 100% control that.)
Don’t trivialize or ignore the customer’s feelings (e.g., “Our other customers don’t have any problem with this.”)
Don’t defend yourself by blaming someone else or minimizing the problem (e.g., don’t throw third party vendors under the bus.)
Don’t over-apologize (the word “sorry” will lose all meaning if you say it too often.)
The sort of grudging “Well, it was really your fault but I guess the customer is always right” apology that some companies tend to give is worse than none at all.
5 outstanding examples of customer apology letters
If you need some inspiration to craft your own apology letter to a customer, consider these five outstanding examples.
Earlier this year I had to make a withdrawal from an investment account to put a down payment on a home. Due to some complicated paperwork requirements, the investment bank (Wealthsimple) had to initiate the withdrawal themselves.
Unfortunately, they sent the money to the wrong bank account, which made it very difficult for me to close my house purchase on time.
However, their response was excellent. They took my concerns seriously, replied quickly, and reestablished the trust I previously had in them. Here’s the apology email I received from one of the agents who worked on my case:
Thanks for your email here.
I'd firstly like to offer my sincerest apologies here for this huge inconvenience and burden as a result of my mistake. Normally, when an RRSP withdrawal is cancelled, it needs to be reinitiated right away to ensure the funds that were raised are not reinvested automatically the next business day. Upon noticing that the withdrawal was not reinitiated, and at the risk of the funds being invested again, I had taken the liberty of reinitiating it myself with the HBP form provided. However, as you noted and confirmed, it looks like I had opted in for the wrong/default banking which cascaded to your precarious situation.
Though I am glad that you were able to complete the home purchase, I fully understand your concerns. I've raised this to my team here, and I've put forth a request for compensation as a result of my error.
Once more, my sincerest apologies for the additional stress and headache. I'll circle back to you on that end in 2 business days with an update.
Let me know if you have any further questions about this and I'd be happy to help.
There are a couple of things that were done very well. First of all, even though they apologized for “the inconvenience,” they specifically called out the issues I had encountered. They explained clearly what had happened and what had led to the issues I experienced.
Second, they let me know that they were looking into what they could do to fix this for me and gave me a timeline for when they'd reply again. They set clear expectations and met them by emailing me two days later.
The agent wasn’t defensive or accusatory (even though I probably could have been clearer in my request). Instead, they were sympathetic and helpful. Altogether, it was an effective apology.
Earlier this year, Ravelry (a large community platform for designers, makers, and other fiber artists) underwent a controversial redesign. Many users reported experiencing migraines when using the website, while others reported issues accessing the site with screen readers or other accessibility tools.
However, Ravelry’s team of developers didn’t respond to the issues quickly. Instead, one of the Co-founders aggressively defended the site design, refusing to listen to their users’ feedback. This escalated the issue. Users of the site felt like they weren’t being listened to.
This is when Jessica, the other Co-founder, stepped in to provide the following apology.
Dear Ravelry Community,
I first would like to apologize for any stress and uncertainty that the Ravelry site redesign has caused in what is already a difficult year. I am so sorry that our actions, or inactions, have made anyone in the community feel unheard. We acknowledge that our responses up to this point have been insufficient.
It pains the whole team and myself that Ravelry, which we know is a source of comfort to many, caused any additional anxiety to anyone at all. I hope that people will find joy on Ravelry again, and please know that we are working hard toward this goal.
In the meantime, I thought that it might be useful to have some common questions answered by me today.
Why has this response taken so long?
I know it has taken so long for me to get to this letter and I sincerely apologize for the delay. Given the number of responses to the site redesign in June, we wanted to be very purposeful and thorough. We are still going through the wide range of feedback, getting more messages every day, and trying to navigate a path forward with accessibility leading. ...
In the letter, Jessica takes full responsibility for the issues over the last few months. She acknowledges that customers felt unheard, and she explains that the other Co-founder will solely do technical work moving forward.
Then Jessica shares what they will do to resolve the situation. She walks through their desire to potentially hire more full-time team members to help improve the user experience.
It’s clear that their Leadership team has taken the concerns seriously and will work toward a resolution that will work for everyone. While it must have taken some difficult behind-the-scenes conversations (Jessica’s wife is the other Co-founder!), they were transparent and vulnerable in their apology letter.
If your brand image is fun and laid-back, a formal apology can seem out of character. When it’s appropriate, including humor in an apology can win your customer over.
When is it appropriate? Check out the great use of humor in Caskers’ (an online drinks company) excellent apology below.
Customers were sent a “back in stock!” notification for a product that was … very much not in stock. When Caskers realized what had happened, they sent an email to apologize for the confusion, share what had happened, and offer a discount code.
Dear Awesome Member,
You may have recently received a "back in stock" notification for a product that was, in fact, not back in stock. Our bad. We've been having ongoing technical problems with our stock notifications — our crack technical team is on the case — but sadly no whiskey was involved, so we can't even blame that for our mistake.
We ask for forgiveness using monetary incentives, because apologies with a dollar sign attached are always better.
Thank you for sticking with us, even when our hands are slippery.
This funny apology is appropriate for this situation because the actual impact on customers was very minimal. If there had been billing issues or a loss of business operations, many customers wouldn’t have found this funny.
It also aligns with Caskers’ brand. If your brand frequently uses humor as a marketing tactic, it may also be appropriate for your genuine apologies.
When Outsite, a co-living and co-working community, accidentally sent an email stating that members needed to make a renewal payment, they addressed the issue in the following apology letter:
We had a technical problem yesterday that we want to explain to you.
For context, we're Outside. We create co-living spaces designed for location independent professionals.
At some point in the past 4 years, you've signed up to a newsletter, downloaded an ebook, or booked a stay with us, which is why we have your email on file. If you haven't heard from us in a while, it's because we usually only send emails to users who regularly open and read our emails.
Yesterday we may have sent you a Membership Renewal Email you weren't meant to receive. We realize this may have been alarming, as the email states there will be a renewal charge.
We're writing to you to make it clear you will NOT be charged. We do not have your payment info on file, even if you've booked with us in the past.
Our email software is broken down into lists. Yesterday, a large list was mistakenly sent an email asking whether they'd like to renew their Outsite Membership. You were one of those people, and you were not meant to receive this email…
Outsite did a number of things well. They clearly understood why customers were concerned about the rogue email. Customers wanted to make sure that they were not going to be charged for something they didn’t sign up for.
Outsite’s email reassured customers that there was no payment information stored, and they wouldn’t be charged. They offered a simple yet thorough explanation of what went wrong, and, as a customer reading this, I felt reassured that Outsite had the issue under control.
One of the toughest apologies to write is an outage apology. Even a short outage can have a big impact on your customers’ businesses, and they can easily lose faith in your ability to deliver the service you’ve promised.
So when GitLab had a really bad day that resulted in several hours of downtime alongside lost production data, they needed to regain the trust of their customers.
Their apology not only reassured their existing customers that they had everything under control, but it also garnered them positive publicity from a wider audience.
This incident caused the GitLab.com service to be unavailable for many hours. We also lost some production data that we were eventually unable to recover. Specifically, we lost modifications to database data such as projects, comments, user accounts, issues and snippets, that took place between 17:20 and 00:00 UTC on January 31. Our best estimate is that it affected roughly 5,000 projects, 5,000 comments, and 700 new user accounts. Code repositories or wikis hosted on GitLab.com were unavailable during the outage but were not affected by the data loss. GitLab Enterprise customers, GitHost customers, and self-hosted GitLab CE users were not affected by the outage or the data loss.
Losing production data is unacceptable. To ensure this does not happen again we're working on multiple improvements to our operations & recovery procedure for GitLab.com. In this article we'll look at what went wrong, what we did to recover, and what we'll do to prevent this from happening in the future.
To the GitLab.com users whose data we lost and to the people affected by the outage: we're sorry. I apologize personally, as GitLab's CEO, and on behalf of everyone at GitLab.
Why did this apology work so well? GitLab committed to being radically transparent throughout the entire process. They had a public Google Doc where they shared updates, they live-streamed their Engineering team working on the issues, and they tweeted from @GitLabStatus using the hashtag #hugops.
This level of honesty won them many fans over the day, along with sympathy from Ops teams who had been there in the past.
After it was all over, GitLab published a lengthy post-mortem blog post sharing what they had learned and explaining how they would prevent this from happening in the future.
An incident that could have been a business-ending mistake may have been their biggest success story. They now boast a user base of over 100,000 businesses.
Is it too late now to say sorry?
The ability to apologize effectively is a skill that can be practiced regularly, from small misunderstandings to larger tech issues and everything in between. The value it will bring to your business (and your personal life!) is immeasurable.
The best part: With practice, anyone can do it (even, I hear, three-year-olds).
Help Scout's Mathew Patterson also contributed to this article.