When Your Company Has to Say Sorry, Here’s How to Do It Right

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It’s lockdown redux, so companies are again apologizing to customers for delays, closures, and unavailable services. Most do it terribly. A much-utilized apology fail is “We missed the mark,” used by Pepsi, Dove, and Avon in the past few years while retracting ads insensitive to women and minorities. The political version is the exquisitely passive “Mistakes were made,” uttered by presidents Nixon, H.W. Bush, Reagan, and Clinton after various scandals.

Researchers and communications pros say companies and politicians need to raise their game when it comes to apologizing. Far too often they resort to blame, clichés, and platitudes, such as “We’re sorry for the inconvenience,” while failing to offer adequate compensation for the trouble clients have had. “An apology helps repair the bond between the business and the customer,” says Amy Ebesu Hubbard, a professor of communications at the University of Hawaii. “If there’s no clearly stated apology, that communicates that the company doesn’t care about the customer, or that there’s no longer even a relationship.” Ouch.

A crash course: You need to say you’re sorry every time a customer is somehow harmed, and that apology should usually include four components: accepting responsibility, showing that you understand the difficulty caused, stating what you’ve learned, and explaining what you’ll do in the future. These can sometimes be brief—just a few words—and for minor transgressions such as a shipping delay on a nonessential item, you may not need all four components. Use your judgment. But do it right:

● Don’t blame Covid-19.

Your customers already know deep in their souls and toes and wallets that there’s a virus—and that it’s been mucking up everything for almost a year now. If you’re still blaming the pandemic for business disruptions, customers may wonder why your company hasn’t found another way to meet their needs. “At this point, using Covid-19 as a reason is getting old,” says Hubbard.
 
Wrong: Because of the current Covid-19 situation, we’re closing our stores early.
Right: We’re keeping our employees safe by instituting split shifts.

215,860 in U.S.Most new cases today

+10% Change in MSCI World Index of global stocks since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

-0.​7914 Change in U.S. treasury bond yield since Wuhan lockdown, Jan. 23

4% Global GDP Tracker (annualized), Oct.


● Write as a real human who takes responsibility.

Who’s offering the apology? Words written by undefined, godlike speakers result in clumsy messages that fail to explain what’s happening and why. “It’s impersonal, unspecific, and sounds like they can’t make up their mind about how they feel,” says Edwin Battistella, author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology. You want to verbally hug your clients. Hugs come from people with feelings and points of view.
 
Wrong: We are sad to announce that the restaurant will be shutting its doors as per the state government’s request.
Right: I’m Jane, the store manager. I’m proud to support our governor and keep our employees safe by temporarily closing our doors.

● Apologize for the precise harm to your customer.

This is where many companies go stunningly wrong. Remember: An apology isn’t about the devastating, unforeseen circumstances affecting your business. It’s not about the business at all. It’s about the customer, and any other focus will generate suspicion about your motives, says apology researcher Yohsuke Ohtsubo, a psychologist at Kobe University. Ask yourself about the events that led to a customer seeing your message. If she’s reading a “Closed” sign on your door, she wasted her time getting there and can’t buy the product she wanted. Directly acknowledge that.
 
Wrong: Attention, customers: Effective March 15, our temporary hours will be …
Right: I would have called, but I didn’t have your number! I’m so sorry you came all the way here and found this sign. I’d like to make it up to you. Please email me what you’d planned to purchase, and George, our heroic warehouse manager, will arrange free shipping.

● Consider a sacrificial apology.

Paying up is the corporate version of a cheating spouse proffering a diamond after an affair, because words won’t cut it. Ohtsubo has found that saying you’re sorry works better when accompanied by a concrete gesture such as compensation, a voucher, or executives lowering their salaries. While a sacrifice is necessary only if the customer has been significantly harmed, it works, because people perceive organizations to have humanlike intentions and feelings. “If they suspect the organization is being exploitative or somehow improperly profiting off of customers or employees, the apology should be costly to show that they value customers and employees more than the costs incurred,” Ohtsubo says.
 
Wrong: Classes canceled until further notice.
Right: We can’t wait to see you again. And as a token of our appreciation, we hope you’ll enjoy this voucher for two free classes.

● Indicate how the company will next interact with customers.

You’re communicating with people who want to do business with you, so be sure to include information on services you’ve introduced that might meet their needs. Lacking that, at least be specific about when and how they’ll next hear from you. “A lot of signs just sort of say ‘Go to our website,’” Battistella says. “It’s better to offer more specifics.”
 
Wrong: We apologize for any inconvenience our shutdown has caused.
Right: Please send a text message to 94825, and we’ll tell you about our new curbside and mail-order options and let you know when we can again serve you in person.
 
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