The Art of Apologising

Categories: Winnthinks

One of Winnthinking’s core activities is helping customer service professionals have difficult conversations, particularly with people who are angry or upset. One of the things we’ll always talk about is the Art of Apologising – because this is an art and it’s often poorly done.

Firstly, a word about words. ‘Sorry’ has its roots in the Old English ‘sarig’, meaning ‘distressed and full of sorrow’. That’s a pretty full-on definition compared to how we use ‘sorry’ today. According to a 2007 survey by car insurers Esure, 86% of Britons believe that the word is used flippantly, ‘as a cheap and convenient way of excusing anti-social or inappropriate behaviour’. No wonder it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deliver an apology in a way that sounds genuine.

So when exactly did ‘sorry’ start becoming something else? I can’t help thinking that often, in a customer service situation, ‘sorry’ gets used defensively – a sort of pre-emptive strike just in case something should go wrong at some point later on… a polite, magical incantation that will soften up the customer and make them less likely to have a go. Why else would someone say “sorry to keep you” when they haven’t kept me, or “sorry the lasagne’s all gone” when there’s still thirty other things on the menu? Using ‘sorry’ when there’s nothing to apologise for devalues the word and makes you and me sound submissive and weak. At best it serves no purpose. At worst it undermines your credibility and irritates your customer. Best we knock that one on the head straight away, then.

So here, in a nutshell, are the steps to apologising well. You should find they help your customer accept your apology graciously and consider their emotional needs met.

    1. Listen intelligently, with full attention, without interrupting.

    People need to be listened to and dissatisfied people need to be listened to even more. When they’ve finished telling you how it is for them, check anything you didn’t understand, respectfully and without judgement. After that, the rule is:

    2. Apologise once and well, then move on to solutions.

    If it’s a simple mistake that can be rectified there and then, say “I’m sorry, thank you for pointing that out. Let me put that right for you” (or similar). That’s it. You don’t need to say sorry again, the issue is dealt with and you and the customer can move on. Repeating your apology lessens its effectiveness – like picking at a scab. Less is definitely more.

    If the complaint is more complicated, so you need to check out some facts or a procedure before offering a solution…

    3. Say thank you for the information given and acknowledge any upset caused.

    “Thank you for letting me know, Mr Smits, you’ve really had a lot of trouble over this, haven’t you. I’m going to look into this urgently, and get back to you before the end of today…” If at this stage you feel it’s appropriate to make an apology, for example because the customer is clearly angry or upset…

    4. Be very clear what you are apologising for.

    This is particularly important if you work within a highly regulated industry such as financial services, where apologising could be construed as an admission of liability. Useful phrases might include: “I’m sorry this has become so complicated….” or “I’m sorry this matter has caused you such distress….”

    Oh yes… do avoid trotting out that hackneyed old phrase “We apologise for the inconvenience caused”. It winds people up. It’s such a stock phrase it no longer has any genuineness to it, plus ‘inconvenience’ suggests triviality – it’s red rag to a bull when people feel (rightly or wrongly) that they’ve had their day ruined by your mistake.

    5. Once you’ve completed your investigation, go back to Number 2:

    Apologise once and well, then move on to solutions.

    At the heart of this is the old adage: ‘never ruin an apology with an excuse.’ Apologies are given, in the way gifts are, with the hope of gracious acceptance and an end to the matter. If you were given a box of chocolates, say, but the giver insisted on taking back the first layer, you’d feel pretty cheated. Same with an apology: it has to be given with genuine good grace otherwise it just won’t do. So, if you’re apologising on behalf of your organisation for something that wasn’t personally your fault (a common situation for those in customer service), you’re still well advised to make it personal: “On behalf of XYZ Ltd please accept my sincere apology for [that thing that happened… see 4 above] and thank you for drawing it to our attention.”

As my old Dad used to say; “stick to the moral high ground, the view is lovely from up there!”


  1. A very helpful article Rebecca thank you, well timed as well, I am currently looking at “Customer Journey and the Power of A Word” with my teams.

  2. Thanks, Kevin, comments always appreciated 🙂 The Power of Words – a fascinating theme! Let me know if you fancy a brain pick about that some time.

  3. Thanks Rebecca. Great insight as always and so so true!

  4. Thank you Oona 🙂

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