Does Your Company Know How to Apologize Effectively?

Most customer service representatives are trained to voice apologies when handling complaint calls but they are rarely trained to do so correctly. Consider the following scenario: A customer calls a contact center to complain about a new video camera that malfunctioned after only two days, erasing everything the customer had taped. The representative jumps in and says, “I’m sorry your video camera malfunctioned” and then goes on to tell the customer the “good news”, that their warrantee provides them free parts and labor at a nearby service center and a turnaround time of only two to four weeks.

The representative apologized, named the issue correctly and even offered a solution. The vast majority of companies would consider such an apology acceptable and sufficient—but is it?

What if the footage the customer lost in the malfunctioning camera was the birth of his first child; images of his wife holding their newborn daughter, the joy and tears they both felt after years of undergoing fertility treatments, precious moments lost forever? Would “I’m sorry your video camera malfunctioned” represent a sufficient apology then?

The reason many companies fall short in the apology department is that truly effective apologies are more complicated to pull off than we realize.

What Science Discovered about Effective Apologies

Despite years of research into conflict resolution and forgiveness, the role of apologies in most studies are typically noted by their absence or presence alone (i.e., whether an apology was offered or not). But recent studies have found that beyond mere expressions of regret (“I’m sorry”), three additional components play a crucial role in determining whether an apology will be effective in eliciting forgiveness and mending relationship ruptures:

(A) Expressions of empathy

(B) Adequate offers of compensation

(C) Acknowledging that certain norms and expectations were violated.

While most companies offer some form or redress or compensation (for example, fixing or replacing a malfunctioning video camera) they are not always adequate. Further, statements of empathy and acknowledgments that certain norms and expectation were violated are rarely expressed by service representatives.

How Customer Service Representatives Should Apologize

The two biggest mistakes service representatives make when apologizing (though it is of note that there are still companies whose representatives fail to voice apologies of any kind) are:

(A) Doing so too soon.

(B) Having a one size fits all formula such as “I’m sorry you had trouble with [blank]”.

Such approaches are easy to teach and therefore they might reduce a company’s contact center training costs in the short term, but the company will lost revenue in the long run because such apologies contribute to unsuccessful service recoveries, lead to poor customer retention and foster poor word of mouth.

Effective apologies must adhere to the following principles:

1. Customer service representatives should only apologize after allowing the customer to express their complaint fully. Until they know what exactly they are apologizing for, any statement of regret they make will not seem authentic to the customer.

2. The representative must offer an empathic statement that reflects the customer’s perception of their problem’s severity. In our example, something like, “Oh my goodness, I am so sorry to hear that! I can only imagine how upset you must feel,” or “Oh, I am truly sorry this happened on such an important occasion!” would be much closer to expressing the necessary amount of empathy for such an unfortunate incident.

3. When relevant, the representative should acknowledge the problem the customer encountered represents a clear departure from what customers should expect from the company ordinarily (i.e., that the company too finds it unacceptable). For example, “We take pride in our products and it is extremely rare for one to malfunction this way right out of the box. Again, I cannot tell you how sorry I am for this to have happened.”

4. The goal of offering compensation (by having the item fixed or replaced) is to restore a sense of justice and fairness. In our example, having the video camera fixed is insufficient as it is a standard procedure that does nothing to acknowledge the customer’s unique circumstance. The representative could state the standard procedure but then offer to overnight the customer a replacement so he does not miss capturing any more of his daughter’s first days or offer another form of unusual compensatory action. Making such gestures is vital to restoring the customer’s sense of justice and fairness and by doing so, rendering the representative’s apologies both convincing and ultimately effective.

Of course, there is more to a successful service recovery than an apology alone. In our example the representative must make sure the customer has no other issues or dissatisfactions, they must collect all the pertinent information and file the necessary paperwork. After the call, they should follow up, first to confirm the replacement video camera arrived in the timeframe stated to the customer and then by calling or emailing the customer to verify they are satisfied with the resolution offered to them.


If a company’s service recoveries are to be successful, it is crucial for companies to train their service representatives to apologize correctly. Lackluster or insincere sounding apologies are often as bad as no apology at all and they can end up hurting the company by contributing to negative word of mouth and increased customer attrition.

On the other hand, effective apologies can repair and strengthen the core relationship between companies and their customers by building trust and confidence in the company. Companies whose representatives apologize effectively will see gains in customer loyalty and an increase in positive word of mouth.

Elton John was only half right: Sorry might be the hardest word—but it’s not an impossible one.

Copyright 2010 Guy Winch Ph.D.


When apologies work: How matching apology components to victims’ self-construals facilitates forgiveness. Fehr, R., & Gelfand, M. (2010). Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 113 (1), 37-50.

The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem by Guy Winch Ph.D. (January 2011 Walker and Company).

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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