Optimising an Apology, in 6 Steps

I love receiving great service. Who doesn't?

Something arrived from Amazon a few days ago. It's broken. Whilst frustrating, I'm not bothered because I know they'll sort it, over a live chat, in a few minutes.

On the flip side, I can't quite believe the hell Argos have been putting me through over some window blinds (one of which arrived broken). On one phone call, when I asked for the complaints department, I was told "I am the complaints department." 😤

Big companies often need to say sorry in a very public way (Facebook, I'm looking at you!). For us smaller businesses, it's usually more about the direct and personal approach. 

Sorry... the path to conversion!

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Saying sorry might not seem like the best way to boost your conversion rate. Here's the truth...

Sometimes, we get things wrong. And when we do, we need to apologise.

Businesses that treat people with respect, and say sorry when they're wrong, will always perform better in the long run.

Here's how to get it right.

1. Just say SORRY already!

Elton was right. Sorry really does seem to be the hardest word. (*Side note: Blue were slightly less right when they covered the song in 2002).

Don't say "we apologise", just say sorry. When it all goes wrong, and you get an email saying anything other than "I'm sorry. We got this wrong." it really just feels like they're not sorry at all.

On a related note, watch out for "I'm sorry if..." as this shifts the blame. "Sorry if this offended you", implies that you were in the wrong for being offended.

2. Avoid clichés

How many times have you seen this?

"I apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused you."

For me, this is always a sign things aren't going to go well.

When things go terribly wrong, describing them as an inconvenience can seem rather annoying. And "this may have cause you" seems to be a way of ignoring the original complaint (it did cause me - I already told you it did!).

Aside from all that, it's a complete cliché, and we're all sick of hearing it.

3. Own the problem

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I don't want to be passed through to another department. Or to fill out some forms. Or to put my complaint in writing. YOU work at the company, and I want YOU to help me.

When I think back to times where I've received great customer service (often preceded by awful service), it's often when I've finally spoken to someone who's said, "Yep, this should not have happened and I'm going to fix things for you."

If your staff don't have the autonomy to fix problems themselves, you need to make some changes.

4. Offer explanations and solutions

Explanations are not excuses. "We were really busy" is an excuse. "We were busier than usual due to a member of our team being off sick" is an explanation. Is what you're saying shifting blame, or is it helping the customer understand why things went wrong.

Once you've said sorry (properly), owned the problem, and offered an explanation, it's time for a solution. It's surprising how often this is missed. It shouldn't be the customers job to come up with solutions. Ideally, give them a few ways forward, let them choose what works best for them.

5. Show how you'll make changes

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An explanation with no solution implies that nothing will change. The next time someone is off sick, you'll likely receive the same rubbish service.

So go beyond saying "Your feedback is valued" and value their feedback by making a change. "We've now hired additional members of staff to allow for this" is ideal. Anything to suggest positive change is better than nothing.

6. A note on professional complainers

I spent many years in the travel industry. Some people (not many, certainly some) now use complaining as a cost-reduction strategy for their travel budget. 🙄

Spotting 'professional complainers' becomes easier the more you deal with complaints. It's certainly one to watch out for. Some tips...

  • Fully investigate all complaints... giving specific details will often be seen positively by customers with genuine complaints, and it may put off others (or reveal discrepancies in their issues)
  • Check if they've complained before... some people do this so often that they forget who they've complained to
  • Investigate the product/service... have other customers of the same item mentioned the same issues previously?

Sometimes we need to say sorry.

We make mistakes, we get it wrong. And, if we care, we say sorry.

If you enjoyed this, check out the Rework podcast from a few weeks back, How to Say You're Sorry.

Gareth K Thomas