I’m Sorry: I’m Saving It for a Special Occasion


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The recent article You Messed Up-Admit It in the Gallup Management Journal focuses on rebuilding trust and credibility when an organization has made a mistake.  The author makes the important point that, just as in successful interpersonal relationships, businesses need to take ownership of their mistakes, accept the responsibility associated with those mistakes and take meaningful action to correct them.

We’d all agree that taking responsibility for our actions is the right thing to do.  Does it make sense to shoulder the blame for problems that aren’t ours? Why then, do you suppose, we allow our employees to do this hundred, or even thousands of times each day, by needlessly saying “I’m sorry?”

Don’t get me wrong: when something is genuinely our fault or the fault of the team or organization we represent, it’s appropriate to apologize.  The problem I see in so many of the organizations with whom I work is that the words “I’m sorry” have become synonymous in our culture with attempts to express empathy.  This is a shame, and potentially dangerous, for several reasons:

  • Whether or not you intend it to sound this way, “I’m sorry” tends to be interpreted as “I’m guilty” by the customer. In the customer’s mind, you wouldn’t be apologizing for something if it wasn’t your fault, so you must be admitting you’re to blame if you’re apologizing for it.
  • There are more effective ways of conveying empathy than saying “I’m sorry.” Your tone of voice, choosing words that show your understanding of the situation, your patience and an attitude of service are all key components of empathizing with your customer.
  • The more a customer hears you say “I’m sorry,” the less impact it has. When you genuinely owe an apology, you want it to come across as effectively as possible; the more you dilute it with a history of “I’m sorrys,” the less sincere the apology sounds.

What can one do instead of saying “I’m sorry” to show empathy with a customer’s situation?

  • Use phrases like “Yes, I see the issue here…,” or “I don’t blame you; I’d be frustrated too. Let’s see how to take care of that for you as quickly as possible.”
  • Be careful using phrases like “I understand how you feel.” Unless the customer knows that you’ve had a direct and similar experience to the current issue, this sort of generic statement of empathy could backfire, making the customer angrier and elevate her/his frustration (e.g. “Oh yes? You know what it’s like to pay 120 people to stand around and watch a deadline go by because the #$%^& program they’re supposed to be using has crashed for the sixth time this year? I don’t think you do know what that’s like!!”)
  • Let your voice convey your empathy. This is not the time to have a smile on your face when talking to the customer; it’s time to lower both the pitch and volume of your voice and let your customer see that you take this kind of issue seriously.
  • Most importantly, as the above mentioned article suggests, align your words and your actions. It’s not enough to acknowledge that this has been an issue for the customer; tell the customer what steps you’ll take to correct the situation or prevent it from happening again, and then follow through on what you’ve said.

Occasionally an apology is warranted; save these, though, for those special (and hopefully rare) occasions where you’ve made a mistake, or there has been a genuine misunderstanding which may be due in part to someone from your organization.

Follow these suggestions and you’ll likely see a more confident customer base, a more effective staff of employees and more effective apologies, when they’re warranted.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Seth Brickner
Seth Brickner is a Developer and Facilitator with Impact Learning Systems International. In addition to training and development, his background includes education, technical support and customer service. When not traveling or in front of a computer monitor, Seth can be found running, cooking, playing guitar, reading, convincing himself he can sing, or enjoying the hiking trails of Colorado.


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