Fresh eyes

How to offer a business apology

How to offer a business apology
Andrew Taylor Senior PR & Comms Manager

Written by Andrew Taylor,
PR & Communications Director at Freshfield

When it comes to repairing relationships ‘sorry’ is one of the most powerful words that can be spoken, in any language. Why then do some businesses that have wronged their customers have so much trouble saying it?

From major corporations causing environmental damage, to airlines who’ve botched their response to a major accident, history is littered with examples of businesses that have failed to recover their reputations, either because they did not say sorry, did not say it early enough, or weren’t genuine about it.

At a more everyday level, how many consumers have turned their backs on a business or brand because of a failure to acknowledge wrongdoing (or perceived wrongdoing), be it bad service, faulty goods, or simple mistakes.

From the profound to the mundane, here are some tips for getting business apologies right.

Show your human side

Businesses and their owners often get into trouble because they forget to be human. Over many years, the corporate world has become terrified of uttering the word sorry because of a misplaced fear that it counts as an admission of guilt and will instantly result in litigation and compensation.

But to express genuine sorrow and regret in the immediate aftermath of an incident that has caused injury, loss of life or distress is not an admission of guilt, provided it is worded in the right way. By all means check with your legal advisers, but don’t refuse or unnecessarily delay an apology where one is warranted.

Be specific, show empathy…

Businesses risk making matters worse if their apology is a standard one that fails to thoroughly acknowledge the customer’s complaint. Responses that start with the words, “we’re really sorry you feel this way” are a prime example of this because they send out the message that this is the customer’s problem. Far better to say “we’re really sorry our actions made you feel this way”.

Whether it’s written or verbal, the best apologies make it clear what the business is apologising for. This means giving a detailed account of the situation, acknowledging the hurt caused, taking full responsibility and asking for forgiveness.

…but don’t go over the top

Any apology should be a measured one and should reflect the circumstances surrounding the complaint. I often see apologies that are heavy-handed and way over the top for the incident that has occurred.

If you go straight into full-blown mea culpa mode for even minor issues, then it devalues your ability to offer a sincere and heartfelt apology when the really serious mistakes happen.

No excuses

When giving an account of the situation to a customer who has complained, avoid the temptation to make excuses or blame things on broader business issues, such as staff shortages or problems with your own suppliers.

Remember that the apology should be all about the recipient and how they feel, not your business situation. Highlighting broader business problems only serves to diminish your reputation further.

Make appropriate restitution

Appropriate is the operative word here. By all means make a peace offering, but be careful not to make matters worse. Offering a customer money off vouchers or complimentary tickets is fine if you’re responding to a low-level customer service issue, but in scenarios where something more serious has happened it can be in poor taste.

Often the only thing people want is a genuine apology and no amount of free stuff will change that. Use your common sense and seek the guidance of colleagues if necessary.

Beware the quirky apology

In the social media age, we’ve witnessed the rise of the quirky customer service response by businesses wanting to play up to their fun personalities. I’ve seen a supermarket getting into a fish ‘pun-off’ with a customer, a mobile phone company using slang and patois to mirror a customer’s tweets, and a book retailer having Shakespearean Twitter exchanges with a customer after an online order went undelivered.

While all of the above resulted in largely positive feedback online, my advice is that unless you have that kind of brand personality, and the customer service skill to pull it off, then don’t risk trying it. Again, base your judgment on the seriousness of the issue you are apologising for.

My colleague Laura Cullen has drafted an informative guide on how to reply to negative comments on social media.

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