The Non-Apology Apology


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Given the complexity of today’s economy, not to mention global logistics challenges augmented by Covid-19, it’s not a question of “if” but rather “when” you will disappoint a customer. In this moment, your response will determine if you keep or lose that customer.

Central to keeping the customer is a very simple strategy. The apology. It’s seemingly easy to do. We say we’re sorry all the time in our personal lives. Why is it so hard to do in the business world?

This is the email “update” I received three months after I placed an order and over one month past my promised delivery date:

Subject: Message from [Company Name]


We just wanted to reach out to you about your customized Reverse Retro Jersey size S-46. We didn’t want you to think we took your order and forgot about it. Your order was in our first batch of custom jerseys we sent out to be made and have not received it back from our jersey company. We have involved the executives from the jersey company in hopes of getting some answers as to why we still do not have your jersey back. We are incredibly frustrated that this process has taken as long as it has due to our 3rd party jersey company. As soon as we get an answer, we will provide you with an update. We greatly appreciate your patience during this time.

Thank you

What did the company do wrong? Let’s look at the elements of a proper apology.

1. Recognition of recipient – The apology should recognize who was harmed by the mistake and should be specific
2. Acknowledgment of accountability – The apology should acknowledge responsibility by the apologizing party
3. Recognition of pain – The apology should express how the mistake hurt the apology recipient
4. Acknowledgment of remorse – The apology should express regret and/or guilt
5. Recognition of change – The apology should express a willingness to change behavior

The Anatomy of a Non-Apology
Let’s examine the “apology” from the company.

1. It didn’t even acknowledge me by name, yet it knew what product I ordered. Suggests hasty preparation or woeful CRM software.
2. Accountability was pushed to the “3rd party”, even though their relationship is with me.
3. They acknowledge their own pain – “frustration” – but not mine in having to wait so long for my order.
4. The only potential remorse might be choosing that vendor, but they certainly are not saying they are sorry for the delay
5. Nowhere in this email do I see where anything will change, no mention of changing vendors, no mention of changing the process they are frustrated with and no change in how I will receive updates.

Most importantly, and the biggest miss of all? They actually didn’t apologize!

Is your CX narcissistic?
As I read through the email I reflected on the many service experiences, both as a customer and a CX professional. It is remarkable to think how much progress we have made in the customer experience space and helping to personalize experiences with our customers. At the same time, I document many places where the closed loop feedback for which I would advocate has failed. In this case, the response was filled in defense of pride, much in the way a narcissist would apologize.

If your company is not able to fulfill the five requirements for an apology, it might be best not to give a half-hearted apology or, even worse, a backhanded apology as a part of closed loop feedback. I’m not advocating to stop measuring customer experience, but there is certainly much more work to be done on your customer experience strategy surrounding culture before you can really be successful with creating a true two-way dialog with your customers.

In this case, I give them the benefit of the doubt that they have asked someone to write a very difficult note to disappointed customers, but the tone generated by the note reflects the culture of the organization – both internally and to their customers. I’m sure most that received this exact same note would probably agree that it will take more than a non-apology to make things right.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Ken Peterson
Ken Peterson has over two decades of experience in the marketing research, retail, technology, hospitality and transportation industries with a recent focus on Big Data Business Insights, and SaaS deployments. This ties in with his long history of P&L responsibility and detailed understanding of improving business operations. He has had the privilege of helping clients in retail, hospitality, technology, travel, sports and media better understand how to make use of the vast quantities of data that is now available, but often underutilized and misinterpreted. He enjoys delivering relevant insig


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