How to Apologize to a Customer: A 3-Step Plan

In an ideal world, every business transaction would go smoothly. You hear the customer out, give them what they’re looking for, get paid, and they walk away happy.

But of course, this isn’t an ideal world. While we can do everything possible to make our customers happy, sometimes things don’t line up. We miss an email asking for help, a customer doesn’t get the product they wanted, or we just don’t understand the actual issue they’re facing.

It happens. We should be ready for when things go wrong once in a while––and it’s important to have a plan in place to fix what isn’t right. And the first step of doing this? Usually, it’s apologizing.

Saying you’re sorry is key to salvaging a bad customer experience. It means you’re taking ownership of the issue and acknowledging your customer’s perspective, which can help soften angry customer’s attitude and make finding a resolution easier.

But just throwing an “I’m sorry” at angry customers isn’t the right approach. Not only do your apologies have to mean something, they also have to supplement an actual plan to fix what the customer is unhappy with.

So, what’s the right way to apologize? Keep reading to find out:

Why is it important to apologize when you’re wrong?

So, you have an unhappy customer––and they’re not afraid to let you know it.

When a customer contacts your support team, they’re taking time out of their day to inform you of an issue. Regardless of if that problem is big or small, the customer found it important enough to warrant stopping whatever it is they were doing and picking up the phone (or sending an email or joining a chat).

In other words, you’ve inconvenienced them in some way.

An apology shows empathy. It acknowledges the mistake you’ve made and validates the customer’s feelings, both of which can contribute to stronger customer relationships that result in long-term buyers.

And with more loyal customers, you get:

When done correctly, an apology can turn negative customer experiences into positive ones. But what does a “good” apology actually look like?

3 steps for writing a strong apology to customers

A true apology says more than just “I’m sorry.” For an apology to actually turn a negative customer experience around, a few key elements need to be there.

1. Know why you’re apologizing.

The first step in drafting an authentic apology is to know what you’re apologizing for. You have to know why the customer is upset.

We’ve all been the person on the other end of the phone, frustrated because a purchase didn’t go the way we hoped. So to get to the root of the issue, put yourself in their shoes.

Are they frustrated that they lost money? Is it because they’ve wasted their time and couldn’t find a solution? Did a faulty product hurt them in some way? 

The answer won’t always be clear—if you have more than one person on your customer service team, it might’ve been a different person who helped the customer last. So, how can you make sure that every person on the team can quickly find out each customer’s relationship history with your business?

Ideally, you’d have a system that lets your team search and instantly pull up information about each customer when they need it. Something like a digital contact center. For example, RingCentral’s contact center software lets you see all of your past conversations—including social media messages—with your customer, so that you don’t miss any important details:

Take the recent outage of the financial startup Robinhood. In March of this year, the app was down for two full days––causing users to miss a historic market rally, including the largest one-day point gain in the history of the Dow Jones.

People were frustrated, and rightfully so. They had trusted Robinhood with their money and they were unable to access it. They relied on Robinhood for a sense of stability that they were unable to get.

In their apology statement, this is exactly what the fintech startup addressed.

Robinhood apologizes to customers after a two-day app outage.
Robinhood apologizes to customers after a two-day app outage.

 

They didn’t apologize for their software not working properly; they apologized for contributing to the uncertainty that so many users were already facing. They got to the root of what the customer really cared about and offered a specific, empathetic apology.

What to say…

Tell your customers what you’re sorry for––not just that you’re sorry. Follow your apology up with a specific action or result that your mistake caused.

Here are some examples of what you should say:

  • “I’m really sorry we were wrong in estimating your costs.”
  • “We apologize for taking so long to get back to you.”
  • “I’m sorry the delayed shipment won’t reach you before your event.”
  • “We’re sorry our tool didn’t help boost your team’s productivity.”

What not to say…

This one should be obvious, but we’re surprised at how many companies still do this. Your apologies shouldn’t be generic copied-and-pasted responses. Put a little effort and empathy into your response—people can tell when they’re hearing a one-size-fits-all apology.

Here are some examples of what you shouldn’t say:

  • “I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
  • “We’re sorry you weren’t happy with the product.”
  • “We’re sorry for the delay.”
  • “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

2. Give a reason––but not an excuse.

When a customer is upset, they can jump to conclusions about why something went wrong. Whether it was a misunderstanding or an actual mistake, providing some context to the situation can help customers understand why something went wrong.

Explaining your side of the issue can also show customers you trust them. You’re bringing them into the loop, letting them know the challenges you’re facing and what you’re doing to resolve them.

That said, make sure you’re giving a true reason and not just an excuse. If you’re just trying to explain away bad behavior or lazy work, your customers will catch on––and it’ll make them more upset.

Here’s one way to tell when you’re veering into “excuse” territory: excuses are usually used when you want to avoid accountability. If you feel like you’re trying to blame the situation on anyone and everyone but yourself, you’re probably making an excuse.

Let’s say a customer sent you a support question that got lost. Their original small issue was never resolved, so they’re reaching out again. But this time, they’re really upset.

You apologize for the lost ticket, tell them that the situation isn’t so bad and that it isn’t your fault anyway because the original ticket was originally assigned to a coworker.

In this case, you’re making an excuse. You’re removing the responsibility from yourself and pushing it back onto the customer or another team member.

Instead, what if you responded with, “I’m sorry your ticket was misplaced. Our team just switched systems and we’re still adjusting to the nuances of the new program.” (If this were really the reason, for example.)

Although this explanation doesn’t solve the problem, it lets the customer know why it happened without pushing blame to anyone else.

What to say…

Keep it simple. You don’t need to give the customer an entire rundown of your day or the challenges your team is facing. Just a quick sentence or two of context can do the trick.

Here are some examples of what you could say:

  • “We’re currently understaffed because of a recent product launch.”
  • “Our shipment is delayed because of an unexpectedly high volume of orders coming from our latest promotion.”

What not to say…

If it feels like an excuse, think about if you’re really getting to the root of why the issue happened.

Here are some examples of what you shouldn’t say:

  • “We’ve been really busy.”
  • “I don’t know why your shipment was delayed.”
  • “We don’t check customer support messages on Sunday.”

3. Offer a timely solution with realistic expectations.

Apologizing is just the start of turning your customer experience around. Your customers don’t just want to hear that you’re sorry—they want to know what you’re going to do to solve the problem.

You could tell them the steps you’re taking to solve the problem, walk them through how to solve the issue, or present a workaround while the problem is being handled.

If you’re unsure of the status of something or you’re not sure how to troubleshoot the issue, you can be honest––but also let them know you’ll find the answer and get back to them or point them in the direction of someone who can help them out.

It’s okay to not always have all the answers. Often, you just need to manage customer expectations and show that you’re working on the problem and that the customer can expect a more definitive answer within a certain period of time.

Pro-tip:

When giving estimates of when things should be fixed, don’t promise something you can’t deliver—just try to be as detailed as you can.

For example, think about a time you’ve ordered an item online. While it’s on its way to you, the package is delayed. You reach out to the company you purchased from and they tell you they’re not sure why it was delayed and they’re not sure where it is. It’s still on its way, but they can’t tell you when it’s going to arrive. You hang up without any answers.

While the item might be out of their control at this point, the dismissive attitude is anything but encouraging. You’ve just spent money on this product you really wanted, and who knows when it’ll show up!

Now, imagine instead that when you contacted the company, they worked with you to discover where the package is and why it’s held up. They’re not able to tell you a new delivery date, but they promise to reach out to the shipping provider for more answers and get back to you within 24 hours. You might still hang up without a solid answer, but you’re not working at a solution alone.

What to say…

Take control. When helping a customer, the responsibility almost always falls on you to find a solution. Offer to do as much as you can––and provide solutions for helping customers through the steps they need to complete themselves.

Here are some examples of what you should say:

  • “I’m not sure the answer to that question right now, but can I put you on hold while I find someone who does?”
  • “I’m emailing you step-by-step instructions for a workaround.”
  • “You should expect to see this issue resolved within the next 24 hours.”

What not to say…

Avoid overpromising and under-delivering. If something actually needs five days to troubleshoot, don’t tell the customer to expect a resolution in two. When you overpromise, you’re setting yourself up for angry customers.

Here are some examples of what you shouldn’t say:

  • “I can’t help you with that.”
  • “We don’t deal with that.”
  • “You should see a resolution soon.”

5 types of customer apologies (with examples)

The above steps can be summarized as “make it personal.” When customers run into a problem, they don’t want to be given a cookie-cutter apology statement you pulled from a template.

Different negative experiences deserve different responses. Let’s look at the different kinds of customer apologies (and some examples) to help you get a better feel for what your customer apologies might look like in different situations.

1. When a shipment is delayed

Weather, inventory issues, or just slow workers can all cause a delay in shipping items. While a package arriving one or two days later might not seem like a big issue, a customer could have big plans for that item they’re waiting for.

Issuing a warning (and an apology) can give your customers a heads up that their order might take longer than usual.

Here’s an example of this kind of email from Kohls:

Kohl's delayed shipment apology letter

Along with this message, Kohl’s attached a $25 gift card for the inconvenience.

Let’s break down what we like about this apology:

  • It comes straight from the CEO.
  • They give a reason for the delayed items.
  • They accept full responsibility.
  • They share steps they’re taking to remedy the situation.
  • They give a peace offering.

While Kohl’s pretty much hits all our marks for this apology, small businesses have an advantage in these situations that large companies don’t—they can connect one-on-one.

Apologizing one-on-one with a phone or video call can show your sincerity. Depending on your relationship with your customer or client, you might want to offer your apology through a video call so that they can see you. This is where having a communication platform like RingCentral, which lets you make phone calls, video calls, and even send messages in real time, would come in handy:

RingCentral communication platform

Pro-tip:

If you’re taking the time out of your day to call a customer up to let them know a product is backordered or you’re experiencing shipment delays for any reason, try to follow through and offer that apology in a way that really reflects your sincerity. Don’t just write a quick email and call it a day. Having a conversation shows that you care––and gives you an opportunity to talk one-on-one about how you can make it right.

2. When the customer isn’t happy with what they purchased

Whether they ended up with the wrong item or they didn’t know what they were buying, customers won’t be happy with what they get 100% of the time. Unfortunately, that happens pretty often.

Here’s an example of that happening on a local sandwich shop’s Yelp page:

Response to a customer that isn’t happy with what they purchased

Take note of the owner’s response. Here’s what we like about it:

  • They offer context for the issue.
  • They accept responsibility.
  • They provide a solution to make things right.
  • They make it personalized.
  • They say how they’re going to improve.
  • It comes straight from the owner.

But there’s still room for improvement. The owner puts the responsibility on the customer to come in to get the solution remedied, and the customer runs the risk of showing up when the owner isn’t there.

The owner could go one step further and make a concerted effort to improve customer relations by offering to send the customer a coupon or discount code on a future purchase.

3. When the customer had poor service

Even if you have great customer service teamwork, poor service happens. Customers hang up before a solution is found, or the customer support team is just having an off day and is unable to help effectively.

Here’s an example of a customer reporting what happened at a local car dealership:

Example of a customer reporting that happening at a local car dealership

Although this apology is a little standard, there are a few things we like about it:

  • It acknowledges the customer’s problem.
  • It provides specific instructions on how to get in touch to get this resolved.
  • It gives a name and direct contact information––not just a customer service number.

When apologizing in public customer reviews online (in this case on Facebook), it’s smart to try and push the conversation offline to avoid any heated conversations taking place in the public eye––but Honda of Thousand Oaks could have made their apology a little more personalized.

Here’s an example:

“Hi Jackie. We’re sorry our sales team wasn’t able to support you in finding your next vehicle. This isn’t the standard we strive for. We’d love the opportunity to help you find your dream car! 

If you could please send us a direct message or give us a call, we’d love to talk to you about how we can make this right. 

We look forward to speaking with you and hopefully earning back your business.”

4. When your team made a mistake

We’re all human and mistakes are going to be made. Maybe someone on your team accidentally sent an email to the wrong recipients or they read the wrong winner for the biggest award at the biggest ceremony of the year.

Actually, that’s exactly what happened with PWC at the 2017 Oscars. After PWC employees made one of the most memorable mistakes of the past few years, the company issued this apology:

After PWC employees made one of the most memorable mistakes of the past few years, the company issued an apology.

This apology is short and to the point. Here’s why we like it:

  • It calls out the specific individuals and groups they’d like to apologize to.
  • It gives context to what happened.
  • It states they’re searching for more information even though they don’t have it right now.
  • It thanked the appropriate parties for their patience.

All in all, this is a pretty solid apology. However, we’d recommend making the statement a little more personal. While companies of this size might be following certain standards and protocols, smaller businesses can inject some of their personality.

Here’s a quick example:

“We want to start by saying we sincerely apologize to “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the announcement for Best Picture. We made an embarrassing mistake. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and did not realize until it was too late. The mistake was immediately corrected. 

We’re not sure how this happened, but we are investigating. We deeply regret that it occurred, and we are doing all that we can to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” 

5. When circumstances outside your control causes problems

When things out of your control (like weather or accidents) cause issues for your customers, it’s easy to say “that’s not our fault.” But even if you’re not responsible for the weather or traffic safety, sometimes your customers just want to know they’ve been heard.

Here’s a good example of an apology from the JetBlue CEO after bad weather caused flight cancelations:

Apology from the JetBlue CEO after bad weather caused flight cancelations

This customer apology letter is thorough, detailed, and gives us just about everything on our checklist. Here’s what we like:

  • It’s personal.
  • It accepts responsibility
  • It lets customers know exactly what they’re sorry for.
  • It relates back to the company’s values.
  • It demonstrates steps the company is taking to prevent similar situations from happening again.
  • It tells customers what they can do next.

To improve this one, we might recommend issuing multiple apologies. While this is quite comprehensive and detailed, it also addresses a lot of different complications.

Keep your customer apologies personal

When apologizing to customers, the most important thing to remember is to be personal and empathetic. When you start to use robotic, template-driven responses or you avoid responsibility for the issue, customers can lock in to their negative perceptions of your brand and hold on tight.

Listen to your customers––the problems they’re struggling with or the issues they just can’t seem to solve. When you put your focus on solving their challenges and turning their customer experience around, apologies can come naturally.

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