Sorry not sorry

Posted on Published

I recently read a Harvard Business Review article about some customer service research. They had found that in difficult situations, customers report higher satisfaction after being served by a service representative who was focussed on finding solutions than one who was focussed on being empathetic and apologetic, even when the final outcome was the same.

The reasons for this weren’t conclusive — there is some research that shows a trade-off between perception of warmth and perception of competence (if a person is perceived as warm, they tend to be perceived as less competent and vice versa). It is also possible that the amount of time/effort to be spent on the problem is perceived to be fixed, and if a service representative is busy apologising, they’re wasting time that they could have been using for figuring out solutions.

This resonated with some of my own thoughts on client management. When producers have asked me to proofread their emails to clients in difficult or sensitive situations, one of the most frequent pieces of feedback I have given is to apologise less, especially if your team is not at fault. The client is primarily interested in getting the problem fixed, so move quickly on to what you have found in investigating the problem, and then to proposing solutions.

Where possible, try to suggest multiple solutions to a client, and present rationales for each of them. This demonstrates that you’ve thought through the problem, and helps the client regain a sense of control by allowing them to make an informed choice. (If your team has a recommended solution, you can indicate that.)

As a general rule, avoid words like “unfortunately” or “hopefully” — the uncertainty and lack of control that these words suggest can be particularly unsettling in the midst of a difficult situation. If there are risks that your team is concerned about, it’s better to spell them out clearly and specifically, along with their likelihoods and impact.

Of course there will be times when your team makes mistakes, and a real apology is needed to mend the relationship. But the apology then will be worth more if you hadn’t previously wasted them on situations where the client was looking for solutions, not sorrys.


“Sorry” is Not Enough, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2018 Issue

For Better Customer Service, Offer Options, Not Apologies, HBR IdeaCast, 16 January 2018

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *