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The Art (and Science) of the Successful Apology

I recently complained to a company about an experience I had, and one of their reps called me back to discuss the incident. But when I described the call to my wife, I said that I felt like they were calling simply to make sure I was placated and not to actually apologize, which made me feel worse about the situation – and angry again, since who likes being handled?

At the root of customer service is the premise that you're making it right for the customer. They feel wronged and – rightfully or not – the customer service touchpoint is there to acknowledge their feelings and repair the relationship. To make strides towards that "restoration of normal relations," an apology is usually needed; as with in life, there are ways to successfully make an apology and ways to appear superficial that will cause your efforts to fail.

How can you successfully apologize?

1.   Be genuine, not just in what you say, but how you say it. A good part of the issue I had with the phone call was that the company rep kept talking over me. That tells me that you're not interested in hearing what I have to say, you just want to express your own talking points, regardless of how right you are. Had I gotten the impression that the other person was making a sincere, genuine effort to hear my grievances, my takeaways could have been a lot different. Which leads me to my next point...


2.   Give the aggrieved person a chance to be heard. Basic human psychology says that we all just want a voice, we want to have our input taken seriously. Customer service – and apologies – are not a debate, you're not trying to defeat an opponent with your superior logic. 

I'm not saying that every instance has to end in refund or credit. 

If you truly want your customer to come away from the conversation feeling positively about it, they need to have the chance to express themselves and feel like they made valid points. It can be ego-bruising and, in some circumstances, you may need to bite your tongue, but fighting back can cause you to lose not just the battle but also the war if you irreparably damage that relationship and cause the customer to leave.

3.   Offer something in return. Don't get me wrong – I'm not saying that every instance has to end in refund or credit. In many cases, the "return" can simply be a promise to take some action as a result of the problem so that the complainant feels like they had some impact. They also want to know you're taking steps to make sure this won't happen again, either to them or to someone else. Offer to take this issue to a manager or a group who can implement some kind of fix or process-improvement that will prevent future hiccups, and that can provide an additional psychological bonus: the positive feeling their influence will ripple out and have a noticeable effect for others.

It may not always feel comfortable to make sincere apologies, especially if you know that company policy is firm on a particular issue, but saving the customer relationship is paramount in this day and age of social media and crowdsourced reviews. It can be easier to swallow your pride and make the customer feel better about the situation than face the fallout of a bad online review.

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