Why “I’m Sorry” are two of the Most Powerful Words for a Customer Experience

I suspect that no matter who you are, if someone has wronged you, the first two words  you want to hear are “I’m sorry.” But for some people, “I’m sorry” are the two hardest words to say especially in today’s world of business and customer service.

In personal relationships, there are complex psychological reasons why it’s hard to say I’m sorry so this article focuses on the business customer experience.

Learning how, why and when to say “I’m sorry” will almost guarantee defusing a bad situation and allow you to take control of it. You can also apply this to not-so-critical situations and win hearts.

First, “I’m sorry” does not admit guilt if you were not directly responsible (I’ll address it later, if you were). Think about when someone gets hurt. You say “I’m sorry” but that doesn’t mean it was your fault (hopefully). In business when YOU are face-to-face or on the phone with someone who feels wronged, when it is your time to speak, you must learn to begin by expressing either empathy or sympathy and understand the “emotional” difference.

Sympathy is compassion and feeling sorry but not actually knowing what they are feeling.

Example: “I’m sorry that has happened.”

Empathy is understanding what the other person is experiencing and/or sharing what they are feeling.

Example: “I am so sorry this happened to you and I can only imagine how you must feel.”

If their situation has happened to you and depending on the circumstances,  it might be proper to share “This has happened to me and I know how you feel.” But be sure its proper. If in doubt, don’t.

Neither sympathy, empathy or the listed examples accepts blame. You are creating an important emotional connection communicating that you’ve listened, heard their concerns, care and understand the situation. This is all especially important if they are upset.

Regardless of whether there is a resolution or who will ultimately help this person, at this moment they are a bomb in your hands. Your actions will diffuse them or set them off. Passing them off to someone else will increase their volatility.

Here is a guide of how to deal with a very upset person:

  1. Stop whatever you are doing and give them your 100% attention. Don’t answer a phone or put them on hold.
  2. Let them vent without you saying a word (shut up). Remain calm and listen attentively.
  3. When you think they’ve finished, wait two-three seconds and be sure
  4. After that golden silence, the first words the person needs to hear is  “I’m sorry” followed by what an appropriate reply for the situation.
    Example: I’m so sorry this happened. I’m going to do everything that I can to help you. Or I’m going to escalate this right away to make sure this gets resolved.
  1. Under no circumstance should you ever lay blame or undermine any other person or department. That is a coward’s way of diffusing a situation. It is only temporary and may come back to bite you.
  2. Ask what you can do to help resolve the situation and what they would like. Do NOT offer options until you know what they want. They may simply want an apology so don’t prepare to give away the store.

If this was personally your fault, you need to admit it and do the right thing by taking ownership. This might seem like you are hanging yourself, but in fact and in most situations, you will gain respect and further defuse the situation.

Starting with anything less than “I’m sorry” may ignite the situation. They will perceive you as defensive, without compassion or unwilling to help.  Remember, they are angry, though not necessarily at you. Because a great customer experience is rare, you are already behind the eight-ball. They are expecting you to act defensive.  Starting with a sincere apology will disarm them.

The situation will also vary if they are on the phone or in person. Body language or the tone of your voice on the phone will play a crucial role in the outcome. I have articles on this topic but in short being perceived as sincere and caring is crucial. In person, do not cross your arms or lean back. On the phone, timely verbal acknowledgement and a compassionate tone in your voice are vital.

By the way, in most cases I used the word “person” instead of “customer or client” because this applies whether it’s a paying client or a colleague on your team or in another department.

If you stay calm, listen, understand it’s not personal, convey compassion and sincerely offer to help, you will have diffused and taken control of 99% of bad situations. Now, you can win them back. If you come off as defensive, you will damage the relationship and potentially lose them even if the outcome is in their favor.

Use these same principles with colleagues and you will gain respect and build a reputation as a professional. That’s always good at review time.

-Please read my other posts for ways to help improve your company’s customer service and share it if you’ve found it helpful.


About the Author

Gerry Criscenzo, founder of Advanced Service Knowledge is passionate about delivering an exceptional customer experience.  He has over 30 years experience managing customer facing teams in very demanding customer service  industries such as automotive services, IT Services and Home Remodeling/Contractor Services. Gerry is available for consulting, keynote speaking and training. . Read more

Please feel free to comment or A.S.K. for topics that you would like covered.

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