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How to Apologize to a Customer When Something Goes Wrong

How to Apologize to a Customer When Something Goes Wrong

A tired employee is updating shipping orders late at night at a textbook brokerage. They make a mistake in the code and accidentally ship outdated management textbooks to an important customer. Three days later, classes have begun, and with demanding course loads, the students already feel behind. Many are seeking immediate replacements. Cue the angry phone calls and emails.

Thankfully, it is possible to repair the damage done. In fact, if this delicate situation is managed correctly, the company might actually come out ahead with its customers, a phenomenon known as the service recovery paradox.

The service recovery paradox is a phenomenon in which a customer who experiences a problem with a product or service, but has that problem effectively resolved, is more likely to have a positive impression of the company than a customer who never experienced any problems. Essentially, when a company is able to effectively recover from a service failure, the customer’s satisfaction can actually increase beyond what it would have been if the failure had never happened.

How can your company use this paradox to its advantage? Every department in a company can make a mistake that sends out ripples. It all comes down to your apology message — and how you document, memorialize, and share the apology process both internally and with external stakeholders.

How to Craft an Apology Message

1. Restore lost value.

Your customer believes the balance of “fairness” has been thrown off by this problem. They want to know what you’re going to do to restore the perception of lost value they have incurred. Offer to repair the situation to secure the attention and trust of your customers. If you don’t lead with this step, the rest of the message won’t be nearly as effective.

In the textbook situation, examples could include sending additional resources related to the book that provide additional learning value. Perhaps there are videos, simulations, or other materials the school or students didn’t pay for that enhance the learning experience. The key is providing something that has perceived high value to the customer, but lower cost to you.

2. Acknowledge responsibility.

This doesn’t need to be overly complicated, but it is critical that you distinguish between offering an excuse for what happened and accepting responsibility for the mistake.

After the example coding mistake, pointing blame at another entity, like a supplier or distributor, would cause distrust and derail the apology. Your message has to clearly say that you take full responsibility for ensuring that the problem is resolved in their best interest. That your aim is to regain their full faith and confidence in you as a partner. And that you’re taking proactive and preventive steps to protect them from any further issues.

3. Explain the problem.

Customers want to know you have been able to precisely identify the problem and its root cause. This increases confidence that your proposed fixes will protect them from the same problem happening again.

In the case above, the textbook broker should explain that the code, while always functional, was referencing an outdated set of tables in the company’s database because of a manual coding error. You can acknowledge the mistake, and because you told customers that you’re creating multiple safeguards to fix the problem — tailored to the specific issue — the apology is much more likely to be received well.

4. Describe how you will fix the issue.

In this step, you are specifically explaining how you have fixed the problem and describing what measures you put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

In the textbook example, this could include performing random audits of shipping orders to ensure additional, manual verification, as well as creating redundancies in the coding software that provide further checks on orders — such as checking whether a book going out is more than a year or two old, which could mean it’s a mistake and warrants extra attention. It could also include changing your process to not perform updates during peak busy seasons.

5. Express your regret.

The actual expression of regret (the “we’re sorry” part) is most effective once you’ve sufficiently addressed the concerns above, making your expression of regret even more sincere because it’s backed up with a lot of action. Customers respond better to a sincere apology. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that your customer’s business was damaged, so acknowledge those effects.

In the textbook example, the broker should say something along the lines of, “We are sorry for the disruption to your business during a busy season for you. Hopefully, you can see and feel our commitment to retaining your confidence and trust. We apologize to both your company and your customers.”

This kind of statement conveys true regret and sincerity while also stressing that the problem is being addressed.

Sample Apology Message

Here’s an example of an apology message to use as a guide. In this case, a company is apologizing to a customer about a software outage that happened during one of their busiest times. It covers all of the critical parts you want to include in an apology message.

I want to attempt to repair any possible problems this outage caused for you, your team, or your employees. First, I have been approved to provide your company with a one-month refund, twice the length of your benefits sign-up period. It is an expanded refund in recognition that this happened at a peak time for your company. I have also directed our customer service team to manually check all sign-ups that occurred after the software came back online to be sure they were captured accurately. I will let you know the outcome as soon as it is complete, no longer than one week from now.

The software outage was entirely our fault. It should not have happened at all, let alone during such a critical time for your business. We take full responsibility and are committed to ensuring it will not happen again.

I fully regret that this outage occurred, and our teams are making the necessary changes to make sure it does not happen again. Our outages should be reserved for planned downtime, with advance communication, and we regret that we failed on both accounts in this situation.

To let you know what occurred, your software went down after a major power outage at one of our data centers. Your workload was rerouted to our other data centers, as part of our backup plan and service agreement. However, the second center your content was assigned to was down due to preventive maintenance and a hardware update. This caused your system to go down for a period as the system reconfigured to find the next alternative for your workload. We have now updated our redundancy system to avoid anything like this in the future.

I am exceptionally sorry for this outage, and as soon as I knew about it, I was in constant communication with our technical teams until it was resolved. On behalf of our company, I would like to apologize not only to you, but to your leadership team and all affected employees.

Document, Memorialize, and Share Your Apology Process

It is critical to explicitly document the apology effort made to the customer. That way, if someone makes another mistake in the future, the company can turn to an objective framework to craft a new apology message. By learning from the company’s past, your employees can avoid what didn’t work and provide better responses to future service failures.

Your apology process should also be shared and shown to outside stakeholders. This phenomenon, known as boundary spanning, is critical to the service recovery paradox because it not only shows vulnerability from the organization, but also shows other customers that the company can be relied upon in times of distress.

Businesses are bound to make mistakes and disappoint their customers. But how you build your apology message and your careful attention to executing it appropriately can make the difference between losing those customers or increasing their loyalty.