Heart with a band aid

„Nobody is perfect“, „honest mistakes“ and the new culture of celebrating failures – it’s normal that something goes wrong, even on a customer journey. A well-executed and heartfelt apology can not only mend things but even strengthen relationships.

Your company made a mistake – what now?

I recently ordered something at Happy Socks. Shortly after, I received an email telling me, that not all products were available, and they could only send me part of my order. This is reason for frustration (what about those pastel socks?), but Happy Socks solved the problem with such finesse that I still had a positive experience with them.

How did they do it? First of all, they immediately transferred the money from the missing products back. My order was not delayed, and a service employee apologized to me personally via email. All in all, even though I would not be the proud owner of dapper pastel socks, the error caused no further inconvenience or additional work for me.

Transparency instead of secrecy

It’s not uncommon that something goes wrong with an order or a product/service. Even the best business can be late with an order, miss important information or have a service-breakdown. However, when these things happen, it’s important, how the company reacts. Does it ignore the problem, hoping that no one will notice? Or does it actively approach customers to inform them and apologize?

I can tell you from my own experience: I prefer option number two because I would feel left on my own if a company doesn’t even acknowledge the problems it caused me. But how does a good apology look like? Is it enough to simply say „we are sorry“ or does the company have to earn back trust? Let’s look at a picture-perfect apology in five steps.

  1. The apology

An apology needs to sound sincere. „Thank you for your understanding“ is like a slap in the face because it assumes that the customer has already accepted the apology. But an apology is not a way to get rid of the responsibility. It’s valid only if it is accepted. Therefore, a company needs to say sorry in a way that respects customers.

Examples:

  • „We are very sorry that …“
  • „We sincerely want to apologize for …“
  • „To make things short: we are sorry.“

It’s additionally a sign of respect if you include which problems you have caused. It shows that this is not the standard reply for any problem. Make the apology look like it is personal.

„We want to apologize for the delayed order and sincerely hope that this didn’t cause any inconvenience for you.“

Another important point is owning your mistakes. Excuses or blaming others will not help because it weakens the apology. According to a study at Ohio State University, owning your mistakes is the number one priority when it comes to apologies (Source: Independent).

In a company setting, that means that sometimes, you have to apologize even if it wasn’t your fault. The customer doesn’t care whether it was a problem caused by a service provider or partner. It is your customer and therefore it is your responsibility to own up to whatever problems occurred.

  1. The explanation

Often, people feel personally attacked if a problem occurs. It’s no surprise that the German Bahn has started to offer reasons for train delays. If travelers know that a train is late because of a technical error or a police operation, they are more patient and less frustrated.

Not knowing why something is inconvenient often causes more frustration. The explanation doesn’t even need to go into full detail. It should be plausible and honest. According to the aforementioned study, the reason for an error only ranks on third place, as long as the company takes responsibility.

  1. The solution

The second most important part of every apology is – according to the study – the solution of the problem. This is important if you want your customers to accept your apology. This includes communicating the steps you are going to take to solve the problem. That way, you show that you have a plan (and know what to do) and that you are working on the problem.

It’s important to communicate with the customer on a „need to know“-basis. You don’t have to inform the customer of every step you take. But it is important to communicate that you’re working on the problem. Depending on the complexity or length or the troubleshooting, it could be helpful to provide updates or more detailed info. It depends on the customer. In a B2C-setting, you don’t have to describe the whole process, whereas a customer in a B2B-setting might want to know more about the details.

  1. Compensation

I celebrated my 32rd birthday in a 5-star hotel. On the last night, there was no water for several hours. It took several calls to reception to even find out what happened and when the problem was solved, three employees called us within 15 minutes to inform us about the water running again. However, that was it. There was no voucher or a free drink on the house. For a 5-star-hotel – after all, an experience where service is just as important as the room – this was a less than stellar experience.

A compensation is a message from the company. It says that you know how inconvenient a problem was for your customer. It’s not always necessary given the problem’s magnitude, sometimes, it’s enough to apologize, but at a certain point/extent, it should be part of your general apology management.

  1. The follow-up

The problem has been solved, the apology (hopefully) was accepted and the customer hasn’t churned. Now, it’s your turn to show that these errors are not a repeating part of your customer journey. A follow-up can be an email asking whether everything is fine, but it doesn’t have to be something that the customer sees or receives.

It can be just as well an analysis of the causes of the problem, the process optimization, etc. In Happy Sock’s case, it might be worth to look at the Shop-System and align it better with the ERP-system, so the availability of products can be checked in real-time and unavailable products won’t be listed in the first place.

A good apology takes the customer’s view and doesn’t try to cover up a problem but instead tries to solve it. Many companies seem to have problems with a customer centric view especially when they „messed up“. But owning up to a mistake, trying to solve the problem and communicate with the customer can do wonders for the overall relationship (find out why).


Customer Journeys help you develop customer-centric processes, content and strategies. There are still many companies that haven’t aligned all customer-related business units and who have no clear picture on who their customers really are. Find out why that is and what you can do about it with our market study.

 
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