3 keys to a successful consumer apology

It’s almost impossible to turn on the TV news or click on your favorite news site without seeing another company apologizing to its customers. There’s Target, saying it’s sorry for the latest data breach. There’s OfficeMax, regretting a flier it sent.

But what about the other way? Do you ever see customers apologizing to a company?

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Well, we should, and when it happens, it ought to make the news. In my line of work, I see a lot of consumers behaving badly or publicly accusing a business of something it didn’t do.

I’m no corporate apologist, but it seems to me that in the interest of fairness, those companies — if not their employees — deserve the same courtesy that we ask of them.

A few weeks ago, I outlined the times when you should consider saying you’re sorry. But how do you actually do that?

To find out, I enlisted the help of an expert. Jennifer Thomas is the co-author of “When Sorry Isn’t Enough,” and she says saying you’re sorry is only the first step in a sincere apology. There’s more to it, even when it’s an individual apologizing to a company.

Offenses and slights form a barrier in human relationships, says Thomas. “Those offenses, if repeated, create a wall between us. Apologies work to tear down the wall.”

Here are three keys to a successful consumer apology:

Attach no strings.

Too often, customers offer an apology with an expectation of receiving one in return. That’s the wrong approach, says Thomas. “Simply make your apology without any demand of an apology in return,” she says. “Be sure that you are willing to give your apology even if they never reciprocate it. Simply apologize for your part in the problem.”

Apologize like you mean it.

If you don’t think you did anything wrong, and are apologizing as a first step, in order to secure an apology or refund from the company in return, skip it. (For example, saying, “If I have offended you, I’m sorry,” when you don’t believe your behavior was offensive.) Thomas advises against making an apology in that case, because it would be insincere.

Make amends.

“Try to make things right again,” says Thomas. Words alone are frequently not enough. If you’ve accused an employee of wrongdoing, which can potentially cost that person a job or a promotion, you need to go beyond issuing a mea culpa. Fixing the problem with a manager or apologizing to your social media circles is essential.

Thomas has identified several aspects of a successful apology that have applications for consumers. They include:

• Expressing regret by saying you are sorry.
• Accepting responsibility, or saying “I was wrong.”
• Asking how you can make something right.
• Repenting, or saying you want to change.
• Asking for forgiveness.

Thomas says the last point — asking a business for forgiveness — is too often overlooked. A corporation may not be a person (sorry, Mitt!) but it’s staffed by real people with real feelings, and while you may not care how they feel, their emotions may come into play when it comes to the customer service you receive.

When you apologize to a business, do it without preconditions, be sincere, and make things right after you do. Remember all the steps. The result might not just be better service, but a warmer relationship between you and the company serving you.

And if it isn’t? Well, you know where to find me.

Should customers ever apologize to a company?

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8 thoughts on “3 keys to a successful consumer apology

    1. I’m sorry…. So Sorry… =)…. Just giving you a hard time. No idea why anyone disagrees that letting cooler heads prevail, offering sincere regret, and apologizing is wrong.

    2. People who think that the customer is right in every single situation because hey, they’re the customer. Or people who believe that spending $5 at a business entitles them to treat the employees like crap. We have several of them post here frequently.

  1. Did you really have to add, “sorry Mitt”? After all, it was the Supreme Court, not Mitt, that handed down the decision to which you’ve alluded. tsk, tsk.

    1. “the decision to which you’ve alluded” … Huh?

      I re-read this article several times and don’t see any reference to a Supreme Court decision.

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