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It is often said that ‘sorry’ is the hardest word to say. However, looking at some social media channels, it seems to be the easiest thing to say. Over and over, we see the word ‘sorry’ flooding our social feeds from companies and organisations. But is it always necessary?

As a customer service agent, there will always be a time and a place to say sorry to a customer. Maybe a mistake has been made by the business – a delivery hasn’t made it on time, your baggage has been lost, you’ve been overcharged for your phone bill. Or maybe the customer has just had a terrible experience – a rude salesperson, misinformation from a website, waiting months for a refund. In these kinds of cases, it’s absolutely the right thing to apologise and make it right for the customer.

Even then, however, saying ‘sorry’ every time makes it seem disingenuous and with very little empathy for the customer. It’s easy to write those five little letters and then move on. A customer will always appreciate a little bit more thought in their conversations, and being made to feel like the agent cares and will take responsibility for whatever issue they may have.

However, apologising isn’t always the right thing. Yes, the customer may be unhappy, and yes, the agent still has to find a resolution. But what about when it is a result of a decision made by the business? Often, a company will make a decision, change its policy, or have rules in place that will make some people unhappy. But why should a representative of the business apologise for that decision? It ultimately puts the agent on the back foot and makes the business look a lot weaker as it’s having to be defended and apologised for.

It is still possible to empathise with the customer and not apologise. What the customer is often looking for is not even a ‘sorry’ but some understanding and a chance to vent. Being understanding of the situation, how it has affected that customer in a very individual way, and looking at the impact it may have is a much better way to handle the conversation.

Apologising is also a very passive action to take. It doesn’t actually do anything, apart from perhaps trying to soothe the customer and enable the agent to get past the issue more quickly. Action always speaks louder than words, which is why finding that individual resolution for an unhappy customer will get more results. It will also turn those customers into better advocates for your brand. Things go wrong and mistakes are made, but it’s how it is handled that will bring customers back again and again, and to recommend you to friends and family.

So, the next time you want to say sorry, maybe find a better word instead. Here are my top three practical best practices, from working with 100s of social care brands, for avoiding the word ‘sorry’:

  • Give your agents some time to think of 10 different ways of replying to popular issues without mentioning the word ‘sorry’.
  • Allow your average handling time to go up by 30 seconds for a few months. Allow the agents time to think and review their responses without the pressure of targets.
  • Breaking the habit is the most difficult thing to do, especially if agents have handled conversations from more traditional channels. Give constant feedback and allow time for these changes.