How to apologise


How to apologise

Sometimes, sorry seems to be the hardest word.

Yes, sometimes saying sorry hurts, and you take an emotional hit when you offer an apology – both when you genuinely feel you have something to apologise for, and when you don’t.

But an apology is one of the most powerful tools in your kitbag to help you de-escalate tense situations and improve the client experience. It validates the customer’s emotions and behaviours, it gives them some sort of ‘win’. It builds trust by helping them feel they are talking to someone who both understands, and who may be willing to address a disappointing customer experience.

A key customer service/experience skill is therefore being able to develop and deliver a genuine, effective apology.  This requires both emotional intelligence, a willingness to put the customer’s emotional needs before your own, and often some creativity.  Here are some tips and ideas for you.

Different types of apology:

  1. Personal ‘I’ apology            This is the most powerful type of apology for most customers. They need to hear that ‘I’ word and hear someone else has messed up. That ‘I” word demonstrates personal accountability and validates their opinions, frustrations and complaints.  If you have erred, own up to it, as it will help resolve the situation quicker. If you have not personally erred, you can still consider using the I apology for anything you might have done better.
    • I’m sorry I didn’t make that clearer/sooner
    • I’m sorry but I’m unable to offer you that
    • I’m sorry I wasn’t able to give you the outcome you were seeking
  2. Organisational ‘we’ apology.    If you can’t use the I word, consider using ‘we’ to give an apology on behalf of the organisation. For many this is nearly good as an ‘I’ apology as it admits fault and offers similar validations. It doesn’t however offer the same level of personal accountability that some customers seek. ‘We’ apologies are also a great way to avoid blaming other parts of the organisation. Saying that finance/transport/colleagues messed up – blaming others – looks unprofessional so it is better to apologise on behalf of the company, including yourself, than point the finger at others and apologise on their behalf.  Be careful, however. Making an organisational apology risks admitting fault in a way that might have contractual or legal consequences such as admitting negligence (so the company could get sued). Always check with your managers or legal advisors to check if there are any specific type of apology that should be avoided.
  3. Apologise for the situation.       If you cannot say ‘I” or ‘we’, you can apologise for the situation. It is not quite as powerful in terms of demonstrating accountability or offering validation, but it does demonstrate understanding and compassion, acting as an effective empathy statement
    • I’m sorry you’ve had to go through that
    • I’m sorry about this. That shouldn’t have happened
    • I’m sorry this has happened
  4. Apologise for how they feel.    AVOID!   Don’t say ‘I’m sorry you feel like that’. This is rightly seen as a non-apology and effectively blames the customer for their feelings. It is likely to build their frustrations and escalate the conflict.


Effective Apologies include a number of different elements. Whilst you might not always be able to demonstrate all of these, see how many of 5 ‘R’s’ you can include in your next apology?

Recognition – Empathy. Demonstrate you recognise and understand the fail and the harm it caused

Responsibility – An admission of responsibility

Reasons – An explanation. Ideally both of what HAS happened, then of what WILL happen now (and when)

Redress – Compensation AND any efforts to prevent the fail reoccuring

Release – Asking for acceptance (forgiveness). This will tell you if they accept and apology, and whether you have to try harder.