The Best Way to Apologize to Customers, Backed by Science

By Anton Rius, Content Marketing Manager

April 30, 2019

New research shows the best way to apologize to customers

No matter how you phrase it, apologizing to your customers for a service failure is never easy.

They’re upset, and you need to find some way to salvage the relationship and their business. But it’s tricky to navigate such a sensitive conversation. If you don’t phrase an apology the right way, a lukewarm relationship with your customer will get very heated, very quickly.

Not only do you risk losing the customers you’ve wronged, you risk all future revenue from those relationships. Losing those customers also means losing the opportunity for growth or expansion within their accounts. What’s more, you will likely have to deal with the fallout that follows, including the negativity that can spread like wildfire on social media.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

What if you could skillfully phrase your apology message in such a way so you not only recover but actually improve the customer relationship going forward?

You can. Researchers call this phenomenon the Service Recovery Paradox: a situation in which the customer thinks more highly of you after you’ve corrected a problem than if they’d never had the bad experience to begin with.

In other words, a service failure is actually an opportunity to increase customer loyalty!

The service recovery paradox in B2B customer service

So, how can you wield this powerful concept to win over even your angriest customers when something goes wrong?

A Proven Framework for Successful Customer Service Apologies

A 2016 article called An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies identified five specific parts of successful apologies.

  • Acknowledgement of Responsibility: Demonstrate you understand your part in the service failure
  • Offer of Repair: Describe how you’re going to fix the problem and work toward rebuilding trust with your customer
  • Explanation of the Problem: Explain the reasons for the failure
  • Expression of Regret: Express how sorry you are for the problem
  • Declaration of Repentance: Promise to not repeat the problem

This is a helpful collection, but it leaves a couple key questions unanswered.

First, many influential people in B2B environments frown on what they consider to be “emotional” content, choosing instead to promote a “just-the-facts” approach. So, what’s the better approach?

Second, if you choose to include all five of these steps, which order should they go in? What sequence of these five steps is most effective in order to achieve the Service Recovery Paradox?

With these questions in mind, we set out to discover a scientifically tested and proven framework for phrasing and delivering a B2B apology.

In partnership with Dr. Nick Lee of Warwick Business School, we conducted a research study with over 500 participants across North America and Europe.

Four different combinations of the five apology phrases were created to test for the strongest combination. And, we included a fifth test condition — an “emotionless” response containing only the two most factual components.

Customer apology phrases research test conditions

You might not think such subtle changes would affect the outcome. After all, the only difference in each of the five conditions was the order in which the individual phrases were presented.

On the contrary, we discovered that one of these approaches dramatically outperformed the others when we asked participants follow-up questions like:

How likely are you to buy more from the supplier?

How likely are you to recommend the supplier to others?

How confident are you that the supplier fully addressed the incident?

Across every question we asked, test condition number three was the clear and consistent winner. And the emotionless, just-the-facts approach consistently landed at or near the bottom of every question.

The best way to apologize to a customer is to phrase it in this specific order: Offer of Repair, Acknowledge Responsibility, Declaration of Repentance, Explanation of Problem, and Expression of Regret.

The best order for customer service apology phrases according to research

With so much on the line, why leave such a critical conversation to chance? Discover how you can harness the power of the Service Recovery Paradox in your customer service efforts with a tested and proven framework for delivering customer apologies.

See the all the research details and learn how this winning apology framework can benefit your organization in our State of the Conversation Report, Sorry Shouldn’t Be the Hardest Word: Apology Science in the B2B World.

Download your free report.