The Art of the Apology


A couple of days ago, a friend and I were talking about our experiences at a couple of Lubbock restaurants. During the conversation, he told me about an early morning visit he had just made to a national fast-food chain. He was running late for work and the drive-through was backed up, so he parked and ran inside to hopefully speed things along.

He placed his order and stepped to the side to wait. He said “I watched as two other customers who arrived after me ordered and then left with their food. At first I didn’t think anything of it because I’d ordered ‘no cheese’ on an item that typically comes with cheese. But then it became apparent that they’d messed something up.”

My friend explained that he heard the manager talking to the cashier. They kept looking over at him, so he knew it had to do with his order. The cashier walked over to one of the customers who had just sat down and asked her to check her sandwich. There was no cheese on it. The cashier took the sandwich and told customer she’d have a replacement out quickly. At the same time, the manager yelled to the cook in the back “I need another one with no cheese.”

Finally, a bag with the correct food was handed over. My friend looked at me and said “You know Scott, I wasn’t upset that they messed up. That’s just going to happen sometimes. What irks me is that they didn’t apologize for it. They didn’t even acknowledge the problem or my inconvenience. It’s like they thought ignoring it meant nothing ever happened.”

I’ve had people in a variety of customer-facing positions tell me their company policy is to never apologize. Some say “It’s not always our fault when something goes wrong. Why apologize for something you didn’t do?” Others say that offering an apology just gives the customer an excuse to demand something extra. Almost all tell me “Management says apologizing makes you look weak.”

I’ve got news for you. These people have it all wrong when it comes to apologizing. I think apologizing is one of the most important service skills you can master. And it doesn’t matter if the problem was your fault or not. In fact, it doesn’t matter if there was a problem at all. A well-formed apology doesn’t make you look weak; it makes you look strong, self-aware, and in control.

Use these tips to craft a top-notch apology.

  1. Accept Responsibility. It doesn’t matter who goofed. Your apology should always include “I” and “we.” Blaming “they” or “them” just makes you look like you’re trying to pass the buck. The key is to let the customer know that you accept responsibility for their satisfaction regardless of the circumstances; because you should. They’re your customer.
  2. Act quickly. Don’t wait until the customer mentions the problem. Don’t wait until it’s resolved. The sooner you acknowledge a problem and communicate your intent to fix it, the sooner you short-circuit any bad feelings the customer experiences. Studies show that customers who experience a problem and have it resolved to their satisfaction reports higher level of satisfaction than those who never experience a hiccup. So stop any potential negative emotions before they have a chance to get started.
  3. Apologize sincerely. Look the customer in the eye, acknowledge what happened, and offer a heart-felt apology. A half-hearted “Sorry ‘bout that” just compounds the problem. If your customer really means that much to you, then you owe them a bit of sincerity. The bigger the stumble, the more you’ll have to work to overcome it.

Of course the worst thing you can do is pretend nothing has happened. Always assume your customer knows as much as you do. Sending someone out the door as if nothing ever happened is a sure-fire way to guarantee a bad experience is shared over and over and over again. As in my friend’s example, someone’s always watching.

Top-tier service providers actually over-apologize. I’ve had restaurant servers apologize for the delay in bringing my food and felt genuine surprise. I didn’t feel like I was waiting that long. And far from making them look weak, I felt the apology made them look on-the-ball. They obviously had higher service expectations than I did.

Hopefully, we get it right more often than we get it wrong. But service slips are inevitable. When they do occur though, use the art of the apology to your advantage. Saying “I’m sorry” might just turn a show-stopper into a show-stealer.

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