Sorry for saying “sorry.” Can service rep apologies undermine customer satisfaction?


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Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. So concludes a Zendesk study of how customer satisfaction relates to the frequency of customers reps writing “sorry,” “please,” and “thank you.”

According to Sam Boonin, Zendesk’s VP of products and lead researcher: “Our research shows that word choice and word frequency have an impact on customer satisfaction.”

Hmmmmm, I’m intrigued. Take a look at the chart from the report and sure enough, the frequency of using “sorry” is negatively correlated with customer satisfaction. Increasing use of polite terms “please” and “thank you” also show some relationship with declining customer satisfaction.

Source: Zendesk Benchmark 2014
Source: Zendesk Benchmark 2014

But does this mean that choice of words actually effects customer satisfaction? Maybe. Maybe not.

So far as I can tell, this study is just a simple correlation, so I don’t think we can conclude that word frequency drives customer satisfaction, or vice versa.

The report does note that “increased usage may indicate interactions with those words require multiple back and forth steps, as well as longer resolution times.” Exactly. More difficult situations are more likely to take longer to resolve and will naturally result in more occurrences of polite words and apologies.

Other research found that agents concluding customer interactions with “best regards,” “cheers” or “yours sincerely” were 14% more likely to receive a higher satisfaction score than those using “best wishes.” Without knowing more about the context of the service problem, it’s hard to say whether this choice of words impacts customers satisfaction, or is just a reflection of what happened.

What do you think? Can the words agents use affect customer satisfaction? Or is it the other way around?

You can download the Zendesk report here.


  1. Words definitely create emotion, and emotion drives response. In the case of customer service reps, words are reflective of processes, processes are reflective of customer-centric culture. And, as we’ve seen, representatives’ words, and enterprise processes, can have profound effect on perceived value and downstream customer behavior – positive and negative. Here are examples of both: and


  2. Right. Words convey emotion.

    But in this case, does increasing use of certain words (“please,” “thank you” and “sorry”) drive customer dissatisfaction?

    Or does a dissatisfying experience result in the service rep using these words more frequently?

    The correlation would look exactly the same in either case.

  3. I’d imagine that, used too often, these words can make the representative seem obsequious, i.e. attentive to a servile (and often annoying) degree. Also, as satisfaction is a fairly benign and superficial indicator of downstream behavior, getting high correlation is actually a fairly low hurdle.

  4. “I’m sorry” is designed to communicate a sense of humility and sincere concern. It does not automatically mean “I am the culprit” as much as it always should mean “I care.” The words should be delivered with calm and confidence. At the time when customers are most insecure (because service did not turn out as they expected) is when the organization needs a front line person most confident. And, when things have gone wrong is when customers need an empathic shoulder to cry on, so to speak, not a sympathetic person to cry with. Continuing to repeat “I’m sorry” begins to convey another meaning of the word, “sorry.” It communicates, “I am really sorry, about the sorriest thing on the planet.” Moving from confident sincerity to a “tail between the legs” expression of remorse can erode the customer’s level of confidence in the front line person as well as the organization they front.

  5. Bob,

    I would find it deeply depressing if anyone were so literal as to take any direct lessons from this. This is a good example when a neat visual can lure people into silly conclusions. As you say context is everything. Without it, we are fishing around in a 50c barrel of mystic meg psychology.


  6. The advice Zendesk gave in the case of the agent saying “sorry” a lot put the onus on the customer, i.e., Mr. Customer, make sure the agent is clear on what the issue is. While that’s always a good place to start, my experience has been that when the agent says “sorry” a lot, it’s because of something he (or the company) can’t do or isn’t doing. (And then “sorry” becomes a filler because the agent doesn’t know what else to say/do.) Or because the customer called multiple times about the same issue. Or because the customer had to be transferred to someone else for help. Or a multitude of other things. And then, yes, satisfaction declines.

    Annette 🙂

  7. ‘I’m sorry’ or its many permutations – “I apologize for the problem you experienced,” “We apologize for the inconvenience” – is annoying when it comes across as insincere or formulaic, as it often does. Contrition can be a fairly natural human emotion, and it can be expressed sincerely. But call center scripts that mandate when and how to apologize often suck all the naturalness out of the conversation. I have found myself saying on more than a few calls,”Please. Stop apologizing, and just fix this.”

    I probably would find apologies more compelling if the call center agent asked to transfer me to the person truly responsible for the issue. “Our Vice President of Customer Service is the person who designed the process that failed in your situation. We’ve had repeated complaints about it. I’m going to transfer your call to her so that she can apologize to you directly.”

  8. Now, this is a great answer!! Transfer the customer to the person who designed or leads the source of the customer’s disappointment. It might build some accountability into the system. It is a great reason why leaders need to take the time to be face-to-face, ear-to-ear and click-to-click with customers.

  9. Timely that the New York Times just ran a column that addressed this topic (The Haggler, by David Segal 8/17/14), titled “When Your Longest Call Is the One to Correct the Bill.”

    The column describes corporate policies about apology-making in the context of a specific customer service problem. A short quote from the column: “Asked about this, Mr. Siegel [AT&T Spokesman] wrote, ‘It is basic for us that if we’ve made a mistake, as we did with Dr. Alborzian, that we apologize and try to set things right.’ Of course, calling an apology ‘basic for us’ doesn’t mean that one was offered in this instance. When the Haggler asked for clarification, or a recording of the rep’s conversation with Dr. Alborzian, Mr. Siegel re-sent his original statement, which clarified nothing.”

    This shines a light on a major problem in customer service: the chasms between intent and execution, and between execution and customer perception.


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