“It’s time to stop abusing the word ‘sorry’ and restore some credibility to the act of apologizing,” says Sean O’Meara, coauthor of The Apology Impulse: How Business Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It.
Such abuses include using phrases such as: “I’m sorry for any inconvenience,” or: “I’m sorry that you feel that way.” These are often worse than no apology at all, as they are lazy, impersonal, and sometimes a little rude.
Why? Because the first sentence seems to cast doubt on whether there was an inconvenience – thanks to the word “any” – while the second suggests that the customer’s emotional response is not justified. So, when apologizing, it is best to acknowledge the issue directly and show genuine empathy.
However, there are situations where contact center agents want to avoid saying ‘sorry’. Often, this is because the company has not done anything wrong. Such scenarios are tricky to navigate, but the following seven-step approach offers a method to calm the customer and build rapport.
1. Listen Before Responding
For an apology to be genuine, agents must know what they are apologizing for. Reflective listening is central to this, ensuring that the customer comprehends that the agent has understood their issue. An apology offering or empathy statement then appears much more genuine.
To do this, the agent must reflect back the issue in their own words, ensuring that everyone is not on the same page. Probing questions – if the agent does not fully understand the problem – will reveal the practical and emotional impact on the customer.
2. Avoid Making Assumptions
Assumptions are the enemy of good listening and can lead agents down the wrong path. Yet, in the customer service space, they are easy to make. After all, most agents will have dealt with hundreds of similar requests. As such, it is easy to fall into the trap of mistakenly thinking two different cases are the same and offering an apology that misses the mark.
Agents must let the customers express themselves first to understand the extent of the issue and its impact – both from an emotional and functional perspective. This leads to step three…
3. Acknowledge the Issue
Acknowledging the impact of the issue helps customers understand that they no longer have to explain themselves and allows the agent to move the conversation forward.
To do this well, make a note of when the customer describes a practical issue they faced due to the problem, and consider which emotions they openly express.
For example, say that the delivery driver was late, which impacted the customer because they did not have anything to give a family member on their birthday. They say that they felt ‘disappointed’.
The agent may acknowledge this with a statement such as: “I understand why you feel disappointed. It can’t have been easy to have nothing to give to your son on his birthday.” Then, the agent can reinforce this with empathy.
4. Demonstrate Empathy
Empathy shows that the agent is putting themselves in the customer’s shoes, helping to legitimize customer emotions and establish trust. It then becomes simpler to turn around a challenging situation.
Statements relevant to the scenario at play help agents convey such empathy. “I would feel the same,” or: “It seems a very frustrating situation,” are excellent examples.
Combining acknowledgment and empathy makes the customer more likely to feel understood. Agents may also express regret rather than offer a direct apology.
5. Offer Reassurance
So far, so good, but the agent is not home and dry; they must find a resolution. Reassurance is critical to remove lingering fears or doubts about a positive outcome.
If the agent is confident in finding a solution, they can say something along the lines of: “I’ll make sure this gets resolved.” If not, perhaps the agent can say: “Let’s see what we can do,” to reassure the customer that they are on their side and propose a notion of teamwork.
Either way, the agent redirects the conversation toward the positive: the solution. The interaction does not dwell on the issue, and both parties can look forward.
6. Demonstrate Interest In Solving the Problem
When working towards a solution, agents can create a sense of immediacy to demonstrate that they are taking the situation seriously. Doing so allows any expression of regret or empathy to appear much more authentic.
Tone of voice does much of the legwork here. But, agents can also assert their control, talk customers through what they are doing, and use urgent language – such as the phrase “right away” to showcase an active interest in finding a solution.
7. Keep It Personal
Avoid phrases such as: “We understand the issue,” where the word ‘we’ refers to both the company and agent. In such cases, agents appear distant, which strips away meaning from a display of empathy or an apology attempt.
Instead, agents will ideally use personal pronouns such as “I” and “you” in their apologies to demonstrate that they care about the customer and establish rapport.
Apologizing to a customer is more complicated than simply saying “sorry.” Our seven-step approach offers a more intelligent alternative, which helps agents connect with the customer on a personal level.
For more guidance on nurturing better contact center conversations, read our article: 10 Tricks to Build Rapport with Customers