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Customer Service Skills: When and How to Apologize

customer service skills how to apologize

From an early age, most of us were taught when we make a mistake to say we’re sorry. That’s good advice, because an apology, offered sincerely, can help start a healing process and repair damaged relationships. Apologies are a key customer service skill. That’s true whether the relationship is short-term, such as a brief customer service interaction, or long-term such as the relationship between coworkers or with important clients.

We’ve all heard, however, disingenuous apologies. Think of the flight delay announcements in an airport, “We apologize for any inconvenience.” Think about some celebrity’s response when their offhand remark causes pain to a group of people, “I’m sorry if I offended you.” Such non-apologies are nothing more than meaningless noise. They’re disrespectful and, frankly, a waste of time.

If you know when and how to apologize, you can rebuild trust, reduce stress, and rebuild relationships.

When to Apologize

Apologize when you, your department, or your company made a mistake, caused a problem, or caused another person pain. Even if what you did was unintentional, you can still offer a sincere apology. “I’m so sorry that happened. I didn’t mean it the way it came across and I know it hurt you. I realize I should have handled it differently and I’m sorry.”

Apologize when an application or piece of hardware fails for which you, your department, or company are responsible. “I’m sorry that system failed. We’ll get that taken care of right away.”

When Not to Apologize

Don’t apologize automatically. It seems like some customer service reps have an “I apologize” button they press for every customer call. If your customer is calling to request a password reset, don’t apologize. If your customer is calling to request new network access, don’t apologize.

How to Apologize: A Critical Customer Service Skill

You can apologize via email, a phone call, Slack or Teams, a text message, or in-person. Make the decision about how to apologize based on how serious the problem is (from the other person’s perspective) and the other person’s preferred method of communication. If it was a big mistake, offer the apology in person or, if that’s not practical, make a phone call. If the other person would see it as a minor issue, a Slack message, a text, or an email is fine.

Be specific in your apology. This is another customer service skill. Don’t say, “We apologize for any inconvenience.” Instead, say, “I’m sorry that you still can’t connect to the printer. I know that’s a hassle for you and I don’t blame you for being upset.”

Take full ownership of the issue. Don’t try to pass off the blame on others. Just own your part of it and take steps to make it right. “I’m sorry that your issue wasn’t fixed the first time. I’ll personally track it down, find out what’s happening, and get back to you by this time tomorrow with either a solution or next steps.”

Offer restitution. That could mean repairing something that was damaged. It could mean committing to being a better listener in the future. It could mean offering to do extra work to make up for an overlooked task. Regardless, find a way to make it right.

How Not to Apologize

Don’t offer a general non-specific apology. Don’t say something like, “I apologize for any inconvenience.” Instead, say, “I’m so sorry I didn’t get the report to you on time. I know that caused a backup for you and I’m sorry for that.”

Don’t make it conditional. Don’t say, “I’m sorry if I offended you.” Instead, say, “I’m sorry I offended you. That was not my intention. I value our relationship and I’m sorry for my mistake.”

Don’t make excuses. Don’t say, “I’m sorry, but…” If you really believe the other person shares some of the blame or if circumstances beyond your control played a role in the issue, you can deal with that later. Your apology should take ownership of your part of the problem, no ifs, ands, or buts.

The Difference Between an Apology and an Expression of Empathy

If you use the words, “I’m sorry.”, it can be taken as either an apology or an expression of empathy for the other person’s problem, regardless of the source of the problem. If you use the words, “I apologize,”, it’s an apology.

If the focus of your words is on the other person, it’s more a statement of empathy. “I’m sorry that happened to you.” is more a statement of empathy. If the focus of your words is on yourself or your organization, it’s an apology. “I’m sorry I dropped the ball on that.” is an apology.

Obviously, different situations will influence your responses. For example, if you work in a large call center, you may not be allowed to take full ownership of a customer‘s issue. You must adapt your actions based on your work environment including corporate rules and policies and the expectations of your leadership team. Even if you’re a member of the leadership team, there may be practical limitations on what you’re able to do. Adapt these tips to your specific situation. Leave a comment about how you can implement these ideas in your workplace.

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