The business of apologizing

During my time working for a global IT helpdesk, I received more than fifty calls on an average day. We were the first point of contact for the client’s 110.000+ employees, who called us with questions about just about anything to do with IT. Our customers were experts in their field. Our SLAs (Service Level Agreements) were demanding – as customer service experts, we were expected to have an average CSAT score of 4.7 out of 5. It’s not a success story.

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Not for lack of trying, to be clear. Everyone was happy to help, when the customers were friendly, or the problems easy to fix. Some of us, including me, didn’t mind the more challenging customers or problems. A lot of our customers phoned us in moments of frustration, with good reason. They were in the middle of something “important” and now the software wasn’t working, or the computer, or the printer, or whatever. Schedules were interrupted, money was being lost, bad impressions were being made on their clients, and so on. As customer service experts, we understood the three dimensions of service – there’s always something going on in the background. So whatever frustrations came at us, we knew that they weren’t personal.

At the same time, they didn’t help when it came to the all-important relationship building. (Who wants to do that with someone who’s always shouting down the phone?) Most of us quickly learned that frustrated people tend to want to vent and that somehow, venting is easy to a voice on the phone. We worked hard, but our CSAT was down due to a large number of factors, not all related to our ability to be nice to customers. Many other things influence customer satisfaction: long waiting times (another SLA), lack of expertise, etc. As customer service experts, we were expected to apologize, if our customers had experienced delays or when they were otherwise unhappy with something. Some of my colleagues balked at the idea. Apologize? What for, I didn’t do anything wrong. They actually refused.

I’m sorry, that’s not an apology

It’s also a difficult topic to raise in customer service training. I’ve learned that people are very passionate about the “to apologize or not to apologize” question. According to the dictionary an apology is a regretful acknowledgement of failure. Many people however, think that an apology is the same as admitting a mistake, or taking the blame. Like some of my colleagues did.  Some of them couldn’t apologize, almost like the ability to apologize was missing from their DNA. Others felt they would betray their values by handing out an apology for something that wasn’t caused by their wrong-doing. The problems didn’t end there. A few of my colleagues were handing out apologies like they were the solution to everything. Back on the helpdesk, these were some of the phrases that shouldn’t have been circling:

  • It’s my job to apologize to you
  • Yeah, sorry about that
  • I guess I should say sorry about the delay
  • I’m not going to apologize for that, I’m just trying to do my job here

Emotional vs. Neutral cultures

And, consider for a moment the intercultural aspect of complaints. A complaining Brit (who says “I’m afraid I have a problem” with only a slight raise in pitch) will not sound like something is wrong, not to an Italian helpdesk agent. British people guard their emotions, language is polite, whenever possible. The Seven Dimensions of Culture tells us that the United Kingdom (as is Germany) is a neutral culture. In neutral cultures, reason influences action far more than feelings. Italy is an emotional culture, where people tend to want to find ways to express their emotions.

Apologists vs. Non-apologists

It’s simply so: some people find it extremely difficult to apologize. Approximately 50% of my helpdesk colleagues were non-apologists. Asking a non-apologist to apologize for something they did ‘wrong’ is asking a lot. Asking a non-apologist to apologize for something that they had no influence over is asking too much.  As soon as we talk about the business of apologizing, someone in the training room will say exactly what some of my colleagues said: Me? Apologize? What for? I didn’t do anything wrong. A non-apologist. They’re everywhere.

The elements of effective apologies

According to a recent paper, called “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies”* the best-received apologies contains all six of the following elements (the researchers found that the most important, by far, was acknowledgement of responsibility):

  1. Expression of regret
  2. Explanation of what went wrong
  3. Acknowledgement of responsibility
  4. Declaration of repentance
  5. Offer of repair
  6. Request for forgiveness

In memory of my colleagues

This post is dedicated to all the apologists and non-apologists that I had the pleasure of working with. And here, to finish on a high note, are the few of the apologists’ apologies that also circled (and also deserve to be immortalized on the web). (Click here for more phrases to use in an apology.)

  • Sir, I cannot express in words how sorry I am about that.
  • On behalf of everyone on my team, I want to offer you an apology.
  • It’s absolutely our fault and for that I apologize. This should never have happened.

And our customers…

Almost all our customers were friendly professionals who appreciated our dedication, even when we couldn’t come up with the solution immediately. In no way do I want to imply otherwise. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t have made this post very interesting.

* The paper, called “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies,” was published in the May 2016 issue of Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. (You can read the abstract online.) The academics — lead author Roy Lewicki, professor emeritus of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business; Robert Lount, associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State; and Beth Polin, assistant professor of management at Eastern Kentucky University — presented fictional apologies to 755 people.


Read more about the 3 dimensions of service and how you can use them in your business communication. In the video, Dr. Fons Trompenaars answers the question “How do intercultural skills connect to communication skills?” Please contact us for more information.