Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Deconstructing an Apology

I'm so excited! This is the 100th post that I've personally written for my site. (I've had a few guest posts sprinkled in between and have several more on the way.) Thank you so much for taking the time to read what I write and to share my posts. I'm looking forward to writing the next 100! 

Image courtesy of Pixabay
There have been a lot of public apologies about product and service failures lately. How do those apologies impact customer perception and the (subsequent) customer experience? How do we know the apologies are meaningful and written/delivered with the customer in mind?

I thought I'd take this opportunity to deconstruct an apology, i.e., break it down into its critical components. What makes an effective apology? What components must be included in an apology?

When I started to list what comprises an apology, I thought I could keep it short and sweet. But as I started writing, the list got longer and more detailed. Here's what I've pared it down to.

An apology must...
  • Be Timely: The sooner it's issued, the better - but not so rushed that it's not well thought out.
  • Be Empathetic: The author must put himself in his customers' shoes and understand the pain or frustration they've gone through.
  • Take Responsibility: Own it. (And hold the right people accountable for decisions that were made that resulted in the screw up.)
  • Be Real: Don't use jargon or robotic, overused language to apologize. Say it from the heart.
  • Be Sincere: Honestly and sincerely express remorse. Make the apology about the issue and how it impacts the customer; it's not about you/the company. Most importantly, it's not a marketing piece.
  • Include an Explanation: Outline the root cause of the issue or failure; this let's customers know that you've given it some thought and investigated the issue thoroughly. It also tells them you know what needs to be fixed.
  • Avoid Excuses: This is self-explanatory. Provide root causes, not excuses.
  • Offer a Resolution: How will or has the issue been resolved? If it's not resolved yet, when will it be? And if it will take some time, what's the workaround?
  • Provide Some Reassurance: The reassurance is about the quality of the resolution and that the issue will not happen again. And why not.
  • Outline WIIFM. What's In It For Me? That means, what does the resolution mean for the individual? How does it impact me as I continue (if I so choose) to interact with your brand?
  • (Optional) Offer Compensation: Depending on the situation, you might offer a credit, reimbursement, voucher or some other form of compensation to make up for the inconvenience.
I realize that's a lot to include and a lot to ask, but if you want customers to believe your apology, I think this is what it must entail.

Cartoon by Tom Fishburne/Marketoonist
But do customers actually believe these apologies? That's a good question. Often, it seems like companies go to "Apologies R Us" to pick an apology card that serves no one but themselves. That's why I like Tom Fishburne's cartoon to the left. It's kinda like that.

Are these apologies more self-serving than customer-serving? Do customers get desensitized and just ignore them because they are meaningless? Have we lost faith in companies?

If companies were making decisions with customers in mind, i.e., in the best interest of customers not of the bottom line, would we have so many corporate apologies? Let's be real here. Does any executive with decision-making authority or anyone - any normal human being - ever find it OK to allow fellow humans to sit in an airplane for eight hours without food, water, or toilets? Those aren't human decisions - those are corporate/shareholder decisions. There's no win-win with that.

Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past. -Tyron Edwards


  1. totally agree, annette -- in fact, awhile back i wrote a post suggesting that apologies are brand touchpoints that many companies over look (http://deniseleeyohn.com/bites/2010/01/14/is-sorry-the-hardest-word-for-companies/) -- a good apology can be deposit in your brand bank; a bad one, a withdrawal -- denise lee yohn
    p.s. congrats on #100!

    1. Thanks, Denise! Yours is a great post, and I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks for adding the link here.

      Annette :-)

  2. Annette, this is a great list of what an apology should be. I would love to add to the list a sense of urgency. Speed to resolution is a good strategy. Thanks for all you do in the world of customer service!

    1. Hi Shep. Thanks for your comment! And great point... a sense of urgency to resolve the issue is an important addition to the list.

      Annette :-)

  3. Great article, thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Annette,
    Thanks for another great post. Can you share your thoughts on who should do the apologising and to whom especially in a B2B scenario where there are multiple stakeholders involved ?

    1. Thanks, Rajeev. I hate to answer that with "it depends," but it depends. Thinking B2B, if it's an account-specific issue, then I believe the apology should come from the department head that is responsible for account management or customer success. (This is the approach I've used in my past B2B corporate life.) If it's a larger issue that affects the broader customer base, then I believe the apology needs to come from the CEO (or head of the business unit, if it's specific to a business unit). I'm sure others will have varying opinions on this.