The right way to apologize to customers

You've made a mistake that has impacted your customers, so you need a crisis management plan – and fast. An honest apology can work wonders and may even boost customer loyalty.

Finding the right way to apologize to customers isn't always easy. We have compiled some tips to help you.
Image: © annebel146 / Adobe Stock

An apology as a second chance

Very few people like admitting to themselves that they have made a mistake – even fewer like admitting it to other people. And that’s the crux of the matter: burying your head in the sand won’t help, so you’re better off taking advantage of a second chance! Apologizing to your customers doesn’t just mend fences; a fast and friendly response can actually restore trust in your service, and even boost customer loyalty. But only if you formulate your apology correctly. We have put together seven tips to help you.

#1 Be honest.

This point should be the thread running through the apology to your customers – you made the mistake, so you need to come clean. If your customers think that you are being hesitant or evasive, then you run the risk of them feeling that you are not taking them seriously. It should also be clear that you genuinely regret your mistake. As a service provider and as the foundation of your customer relationship management, your primary objective is to make your customers happy, so make sure that goal comes through clearly!

#2 Respond promptly.

Every day that passes before you apologize is a day for your customers to get more annoyed. If you respond promptly, you can prevent your affected customers from having thoughts such as: “I’ve waited so long already that there’s no point in them actually coming back to me at all.” Conscientious customer relationship management is something completely different. If you let too much time go by, your disappointed customers will be left feeling that maintaining a good customer relationship is not important to you.

Best practice: "We are dealing with your concern right now and will be in touch today to propose a solution."

#3 Get straight to the point.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes; they have a problem and they want a fast solution. Lots of bluster will only shorten their attention span and annoy them even more. A brief outline of your processes – including what caused the mistake – is more than enough, and also underlines the fact that you understand it is your responsibility.

#4 You cannot apologize.

That may sound counterintuitive, but remember that you cannot simply apologize to clear your conscience, all you can do is ask the other person to accept your apology. Many people underestimate the effect of a sincere and well-thought-out statement. Avoid using empty phrases such as “I would like to offer you my apologies for ….”

The best – and correct – approach is to apologize for the production breakdown, the quality defects, the delay etc.

#5 Don’t fall into the trap of explaining too much.

It’s obviously tempting to try and tone down the whole thing by giving a protracted explanation of how the whole dilemma happened in the first place – but it won’t work. Your customer is well aware that there is a reason for the mistake, but they aren’t interested in where it actually occurred in the system. The sales and marketing departments should hold an internal meeting to establish which part of the process caused the problem, and clarify the facts if necessary.

#6 Be loyal to your employees.

And that brings us to the next point: there may have been a software error, a glitch in the processing workflow, or a breakdown in communication. These things do happen, but don’t shift the blame by throwing someone else under the bus. An apology is an opportunity for you to communicate the values of your corporate culture. Your customers will also appreciate team spirit and loyalty and you may even receive brownie points. Put simply, openness, loyalty, and the ability to solve problems are desirable basic skills in the business world and your customers will remember them far longer than any mishap.

Statements such as: "The team has discussed your concern and the information you provided has helped us to identify the weak spot in our process" sounds much better than trying to explain which of your colleagues was responsible for the mistake.

#7 Remember making amends is your most powerful tool.

Broaching the issue of making amends as part of your apology to customers should be done tactfully. Examples of typical compensation for deliveries that have gone wrong or never even arrived include:

  • voucher codes for the next order,
  • an appropriate percentage discount on the invoice (depending on the damage done), or
  • a free gift.

You may have other options at your disposal. The sales and marketing departments can jointly agree on whether the customers affected would be interested in a temporary free software upgrade or the same product in a different design or a higher quality version.

Politely ask the affected customers whether they would like to accept your offer and don’t make it sound like you’re selling something. This gives you the opportunity to present other products in your range and to convince the customers of your product quality in the long term – but only if nothing else goes wrong, of course.

If you choose the right approach, you have a good chance of boosting customer loyalty – which is ultimately one of the primary goals in customer relationship management.

But be careful, as schemes can sometimes backfire. Remember what your customers are expecting from you. After all, they had their reasons for making a very deliberate decision to order a specific service or one of your products. Your mistake means that they didn’t get what they ordered, so make sure that you always offer them the option of getting the original product.

Use an apology as an opportunity to communicate with your customers

Don’t just make the best of a bad situation; taking the chance to actively reinforce customer communication is the name of the game. An apology always doubles up as an opportunity for a fresh start. Depending on how detailed the complaint is, you can review your service and make any necessary improvements. Is it possible that other customers have had similar experiences, but might have broken off contact rather than approach you directly?

That is worth investigating; for example, by providing short questionnaires on your website that specifically ask customers about their satisfaction with a specific process. That will tell you the Customer Effort Score, or CES, for your company. The CES is a useful way of identifying any glitches in your service or customer communication. After all, we all like learning something new – and sometimes we can learn from our mistakes as well.

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