The Dos and Don'ts of Apologizing to a Customer
Apologizing to a Customer Sucks. Do It Anyway.
Apologies are…icky. They just are.
And when it’s at work, apologizing to a customer can feel like walking into an awkward trap. No way to do it well. It’s not like saying I’m sorry to a loved one where you can just talk it out. The weird dynamics of apologizing to a customer can feel simply un-doable.
But you should learn to do it anyway. We all should.
Because there are good ways of apologizing to a customer and there are - definitely - bad ways.
If you learn to apologize well, it can actually strengthen your bond with the client. It can create a deeper sense of understanding and build your identity as a business that prioritizes accountability.
If you do it wrong - or just not at all - you can just be seen as a bit of a turd in the marketplace. You know the ones. Those businesses that are all about grabbing. Not about standing by the work.
No class. No integrity. No…customers.
So, let’s get this right.
In this blog, we’re going to talk about mentally preparing for the conversation and we’ll outline a few things not to do when apologizing to a customer. Most of all, we’ll discuss the essentials that make up a really good apology.
First, Take Stock
Before moving on to the actual apology, I want to encourage you to just…take a minute.
Before you consider how to apologize, make sure you’re in a stable, unemotional place. You need to get super zen about this and be in a giving frame of mind.
What I mean is you can’t go into an apology halfway.
You can’t go in with any other expectations other than apologizing for your part in the mistake. If you’re only apologizing to a customer to get them to apologize to you, or to give your excuses, or to let them know how they made you feel …you’re soooo not ready.
Take a minute. Try to remember what the goal is. Recall your own part in it only. Narrow your goals to just delivering your sincere regrets. That’s it.
Move forward only when you can talk about it calmly and generously, and when you’re focused 100% on them.
The Essentials of Apologizing to a Customer
Once you’re in the right headspace, you can start building your apology. What that means is you want to make sure your apology is complete, focused, brief, and wholehearted.
Here’s a good mental checklist when you’re apologizing to a customer:
Make it private.
There’s almost no apology that’s enhanced by having an audience. Make your apology just between the interested parties. Don’t make it a moment of performance and don’t put them into a situation that makes them feel more uncomfortable.
Acknowledge what you did.
The first step in apologizing to a customer is to acknowledge what you did and how it impacted the client.
I’ve made supposed apologies that didn’t even mention how I screwed up. I couldn’t bare to cite my behavior. Needless to say, the recipient was underwhelmed.
Let your customer know that you know what you did. Show them you understand how it made them feel or how it impacted their needs. This is a signal of a sincere apology, not someone who’s trying to get off the hook.
Be explicit. Use the word “sorry”.
You have to say the words “I’m sorry” when you’re apologizing to a customer. The actual, specific word. Or at least some version of it. “I apologize. I deeply regret…” Something.
Don’t dance around the words. That’s not how to apologize. People sense avoidance, and it can be more offensive than the original faux pas.
Just say it. Don’t dull it down. Don’t sort of say it roughly. Say “I’M SORRY.” It’s not an apology until they hear those words.
I’m sure you know that saying your sorry and walking away is not the full apology. Stick with them to solve the problem. Make it better.
Let them know you’re ready to fix what’s been damaged by your mistake. If that’s not possible, let them know how you can make it up to them and what specific measures you’re taking to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
When apologizing to a customer, remember, it’s not done until you’ve communicated an intention to make it right.
Now, a Few Cautions
So - yeah - those are the nuts and bolts of how to fully apologize to a customer (or really to anyone). But you should keep an eye out for a few pitfalls of the work-related apology.
If you’re about to apologize to a customer for something that might credibly put you in legal jeopardy, definitely talk to a lawyer before moving forward. Ask for their help. But don’t be nuts about it. Studies suggest that in most cases, a good apology is the thing that keeps you from litigation.
Apologizing to a customer in a timely way is usually not only fine - but it can be the thing that keeps it from escalating.
Try not to ramble.
What I mean here is to keep your apology focused and concise. It’ll keep you from straying into dangerous territory and confine you to the real issue.
“Keeping explanations brief and to the point can help you avoid taking [apologies] too far,” cautions Healthline. It’s okay if it’s uncomfortable, but a clear, brief apology will give you both more confidence to get through it gracefully and not stray into over-apologizing or shifting the blame to others.
A gushing apology is really disconcerting to the person receiving it. Ironically, they seem less sincere, are usually about insecurity not regret, and ultimately can set up a really icky dynamic going forward.
Keep to the main point, show them you understand, be present and professional, and move on.
Don’t lapse into self-punishment.
Make amends, fix the problem, but don’t self-punish. This is a lot like over-apologizing. Aside from the fact that you’re being really unkind to yourself, it feels like it’s less about them and more about you.
If you have guilt issues, reach out to a therapist. But it’s not really apologizing to a customer. Keep the focus on them and solve the problem. That’s all.
Don’t imply blame or make excuses.
This is the biggie. And we’re all in danger of doing this once in a while.
Don’t squeeze any blame into the apology. Don’t imply blame on them or anyone else. Beware of phrases like, “I’m sorry you felt that way” or “I just thought you’d know x,y, or z…” Neither’s an apology. Both are just passive-aggressive versions of the middle finger.
And don’t sneak in excuses. This happens when you give so much context to your screw-up that you’re essentially saying “it’s not really my fault.”
These are THE WORST kinds of apology. You’re better off keeping your mouth shut.
If some context is important, you can add a little. But be sure to follow it up with something like - “but that’s no excuse for dropping the ball like that. I feel awful that I let you down.”
Remember, your apology needs to be focused on them. “When you screw up, the victim of your screw up does not want to hear about you,” warns Harvard Business Review, “Therefore, stop talking about you and put the focus of your apology where it belongs: on him or her.”
Context is fine. Excuses and blame are not.
The Last Step: Make Good and Move On
After that, all you can do is make good on your amends. After outlining how you’re going to solve the issues or learn from the mistake, do it.
Don’t expect anything from them. Don’t demand their renewed trust. Just do kick-ass, professional work for them.
Earn the trust back. Move on.
I do have a few clients who are awesome people. But they feel like once they screw up, they owe that person their guilt for life. No.
Apologizing to a customer is a necessary skill because mistakes are inevitable.
They are totally human. So is self-forgiveness. The last step of a sincere apology is to let yourself off the hook.
Are we connected on Facebook? No? It’s okaaaaaay…I forgive you.
Seriously, though - meet me there for free videos, business-y links, and occasional belly laughs.
SAGE Journals, Companies Can Apologize: Corporate Apologies and Legal Liability, Ameeta Patel and Lamar Reinsch
Healthline, Owe Someone an Apology? Here’s How to Make Things Right, Crystal Raypole
Harvard Business Review, The Most Effective Ways to Make It Right When You Screw Up, Heidi Grant