How to Apologize to Customers the Right Way

Updated: Dec 28, 2019



Whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a small business selling baby clothes, negative customer experiences are bound to happen. No matter the scenario, it’s always better to apologize than it is to ignore the customer completely. It’s also equally important to fully grasp the issue and deliver your apology with the right tone and empathy.


Remember, it’s not the end of your business if you fess up publicly on your social media channels or privately with customers via your help desk software. An apology can in fact win customers back and even strengthen the overall business-client bond. People love brands who are willing to go that extra-mile to put things back on the right track.


Reversely, the impact of a bad customer experience alone comes at a heavy cost. It takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience. With so many competitive brands, it’s essential to have a game plan that turns frowns upside-down to ensure long-lasting clients.


In this post, we break down the fundamental aspects of an apology to successfully make amends with your clients. As Daft Punk's song repeats, "we are human after all."



Listen carefully and empathize


This is where your trained support team will use two of the most common customer service skills - listening and empathy. Before formulating your apology, you must first understand what went wrong by closely listening to your clients. Even if you’re dealing with an ill-tempered difficult customer, take a deep breath and remain calm. Remember they aren’t angry at you, but with your product or service.


While listening to your clients, your gut feeling may be to simply say "I’m sorry." However, dropping the "s" word multiple times can come off as insincere and careless. One of the main reasons is because it does not exude empathy towards your customers.


For example, a customer is unable to purchase a product. While your support team may see the problem as a product-fault, the real issue may not be as obvious as you think. Start by questioning the impact it has on them:


  1. When did the issue start?

  2. Did this affect their business (money, loss of customers, etc.).

  3. Does the customer appear frustrated or upset?


Once you understand the core issue, here are a few empathetic phrases to get the apology ball rolling:


  • Empathize with your customer: Although it isn't easy to understand your customers, you should try to put yourself in their position. To do so, ask yourself "if I was in their position, what would I expect to hear?" You can use key phrases like "this must be extremely frustrating for you," or "I understand how important this feature is for you." However, speak with truth - if you're going to say it, mean it.

  • Don’t be cold: Customers want to be heard. Avoid cold phrases such as "okay," "huh?" or "what did you say?" You definitely do not want to trigger another issue. Instead, say: "I understand," "I know what you’re saying," or "I hear you."

  • Restate the issue: There should be no misunderstandings between you and your clients. Make sure you genuinely recognize the issue. For instance: "We understand the confusion this [feature / product / service] has caused you." You can even follow up with the phrase "am I understanding your issue correctly?" to be one-hundred percent sure.


By understanding the context, it will help you formulate a better customer service apology and ideally, earn their trust back.



Acknowledge and take responsibility


Behind every service interaction, be it a call, email or live chat, there is a client. And behind every customer support representative, there is a brand. That’s why it's important to show accountability and commitment throughout the entire conversation.


Put your best foot forward by acknowledging their grievances, even if the issue is minuscule. For example, it can be as small as a broken link in your knowledge base article or as serious as a bug in the system. Taking ownership illustrates to customers that their issue is being taken care of in a serious manner.


For example, avoid generic template replies such as "we’re sorry for the inconvenience." Show your customers that you understand the issue and have an idea how to resolve it. Use these phrases as an inspiration:


  • "You’re important to us. I will make sure the issue gets taken care of."

  • "Thank you for giving us a chance to make things right."

  • "We take full responsibility for the issue and are working on a solution. We apologize for the inconvenience it must have caused you."



Case study: Apple’s Antennagate


Back in 2010, Apple customers began experiencing reception problems with the new iPhone 4. The company responded with some eyebrow-raising advice: "Avoid gripping the phone in the lower left corner." Afterwards, a full-fledged customer service nightmare was in store for the successful brand. This scandal became known as "Antennagate." From the consumer uproar and aftershock, Steven Jobs issued a public apology:


“There is a problem, but that problem is affecting a very small percentage of users. Having said this, we care about every user. And we’re not going to stop until every one of them is happy.”

In return, the company offered free phone cases and refunds to dissatisfied customers.



Be sincere and mean it


One thing you should absolutely avoid is the "non-apology apology." This term - also known as a nonpology or fauxpology - is simply saying sorry without any remorse or wrongdoing. Dr. Harriet Lerner, psychologist and author of Why Won’t You Apologize notes:


“Humans are hard-wired for defensiveness. It’s very difficult to take direct, unequivocal responsibility for our hurtful actions. It takes a great deal of maturity to put a relationship or another person before our need to be right.”

We see the non-apology approach frequently used in the world of politics, public relations and entertainment sectors. Examples include:


  • "Mistakes were made."

  • "I’m sorry you feel misunderstood."

  • "Sorry if you’re frustrated."


To ensure you deliver the right apology, be sure to stick to non-defensive wording. Even the slightest hint of ignoring the other party's feelings can lead to more frustration.



Provide an explanation and solution


As kids, we always asked "why?" - like "why is the sky blue and the grass green?" Customers do the exact same thing, and for good reason. While some may accept the apology and move on, many want to understand what went wrong to ease their concerns. Make sure your customer support team is ready to explicitly react and answer such questions.


For starters, write out a full explanation addressing the main pain-points and solutions. Examples include:


  • "It was our fault and we take full responsibility. The mistake was due to [oversight / bug / human error] that should have never happened."

  • "We’ll be sure to keep a better eye on our release page to make sure you never miss an update again."

  • "We should have made that clearer earlier in the previous reply."

  • "I missed that point in your original reply and apologize for not noticing."


Afterwards, conclude with an ETA. While you may be tempted to promise the client a specific date an issue will be fixed, remember, there may be a whole team of developers who have their own workflow and priorities. Some possible phrases to address uncertain ETAs:


  • "I want to let you know we have forwarded your case to our experts and we’ll get back to you with insights as soon as possible."

  • "We understand how important this feature is for your business. We have passed along the request and will update you in the next 72 hours."


Instead, give an estimated time-frame when the issue is likely to be resolved. If the solution is taking longer than expected, make sure to give your clients a heads up that your team is taking care with utmost priority.


In some cases, you may need to offer your customer a compensation. This could happen if they were facing a severe issue with your product, went through a bad customer experience or if the problem cannot be resolved in a timely manner. Create clear guidelines for each scenario because you’ll certainly have a few customers asking for credit.


At the end of it, customers expect full transparency and honesty, so leave your 5-year-old excuses at home. While an explanation provides full clarity of what happened, an excuse simply deflects blame. As Benjamin Franklin once said "never ruin an apology with an excuse."



Thank the customer and follow-up


At the end of your apology, always thank the customer for their patience. Going through stormy waters is not easy, it can be mentally and physically exhausting for the both of you. On top of that, don’t end the line of communication - keep the conversation open. Wrap it up by asking the customer if there is anything else you can assist them with. Let them know that you are there to help them.


Always try to receive customer feedback by following up the conversation with a short survey or a few questions to understand if your handling of their issue was satisfactory. This will give you precious insight on what to improve.



Track and learn from your mistakes


If you find yourself apologizing more than you should, take the time to analyze what happened in previous interactions. They can show indication that there is a larger issue that needs to be examined more closely.


At times, the problem can go beyond your customer service department. So much so, it could involve bringing up the pain-points to product teams or the rest of the company's decision makers.


An apology is one of the most difficult things to master. But having the right combination of customer service phrases and empathy will make all the difference.



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