Impact Learning Systems


I’m Sorry: I’m Saving It for a Special Occasion Seth Brickner

The recent arti­cle You Messed Up-Admit It in the Gallup Man­age­ment Jour­nal focuses on rebuild­ing trust and cred­i­bil­ity when an orga­ni­za­tion has made a mis­take.  The author makes the impor­tant point that, just as in suc­cess­ful inter­per­sonal rela­tion­ships, busi­nesses need to take own­er­ship of their mis­takes, accept the respon­si­bil­ity asso­ci­ated with those mis­takes and take mean­ing­ful action to cor­rect them.

We'd all agree that tak­ing respon­si­bil­ity for our actions is the right thing to do.  Does it make sense to shoul­der the blame for prob­lems that aren't ours? Why then, do you sup­pose, we allow our employ­ees to do this hun­dred, or even thou­sands of times each day, by need­lessly say­ing "I'm sorry?"

Don't get me wrong: when some­thing is gen­uinely our fault or the fault of the team or orga­ni­za­tion we rep­re­sent, it's appro­pri­ate to apol­o­gize.  The prob­lem I see in so many of the orga­ni­za­tions with whom I work is that the words "I'm sorry" have become syn­ony­mous in our cul­ture with attempts to express empa­thy.  This is a shame, and poten­tially dan­ger­ous, for sev­eral reasons:

  • Whether or not you intend it to sound this way, "I'm sorry" tends to be inter­preted as "I'm guilty" by the cus­tomer. In the customer's mind, you wouldn't be apol­o­giz­ing for some­thing if it wasn't your fault, so you must be admit­ting you're to blame if you're apol­o­giz­ing for it.
  • There are more effec­tive ways of con­vey­ing empa­thy than say­ing "I'm sorry." Your tone of voice, choos­ing words that show your under­stand­ing of the sit­u­a­tion, your patience and an atti­tude of ser­vice are all key com­po­nents of empathiz­ing with your customer.
  • The more a cus­tomer hears you say "I'm sorry," the less impact it has. When you gen­uinely owe an apol­ogy, you want it to come across as effec­tively as pos­si­ble; the more you dilute it with a his­tory of "I'm sor­rys," the less sin­cere the apol­ogy sounds.

What can one do instead of say­ing "I'm sorry" to show empa­thy with a customer's situation?

  • Use phrases like "Yes, I see the issue here…," or "I don't blame you; I'd be frus­trated too. Let's see how to take care of that for you as quickly as possible."
  • Be care­ful using phrases like "I under­stand how you feel." Unless the cus­tomer knows that you've had a direct and sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence to the cur­rent issue, this sort of generic state­ment of empa­thy could back­fire, mak­ing the cus­tomer angrier and ele­vate her/his frus­tra­tion (e.g. "Oh yes? You know what it's like to pay 120 peo­ple to stand around and watch a dead­line go by because the #$%^& pro­gram they're sup­posed to be using has crashed for the sixth time this year? I don't think you do know what that's like!!")
  • Let your voice con­vey your empa­thy. This is not the time to have a smile on your face when talk­ing to the cus­tomer; it's time to lower both the pitch and vol­ume of your voice and let your cus­tomer see that you take this kind of issue seriously.
  • Most impor­tantly, as the above men­tioned arti­cle sug­gests, align your words and your actions. It's not enough to acknowl­edge that this has been an issue for the cus­tomer; tell the cus­tomer what steps you'll take to cor­rect the sit­u­a­tion or pre­vent it from hap­pen­ing again, and then fol­low through on what you've said.

Occa­sion­ally an apol­ogy is war­ranted; save these, though, for those spe­cial (and hope­fully rare) occa­sions where you've made a mis­take, or there has been a gen­uine mis­un­der­stand­ing which may be due in part to some­one from your organization.

Fol­low these sug­ges­tions and you'll likely see a more con­fi­dent cus­tomer base, a more effec­tive staff of employ­ees and more effec­tive apolo­gies, when they're warranted.

Seth Brick­ner is a Devel­oper and Facil­i­ta­tor with Impact Learn­ing Sys­tems Inter­na­tional. In addi­tion to train­ing and devel­op­ment, his back­ground includes edu­ca­tion, tech­ni­cal sup­port and cus­tomer ser­vice. When not trav­el­ing or in front of a com­puter mon­i­tor, Seth can be found run­ning, cook­ing, play­ing gui­tar, read­ing, con­vinc­ing him­self he can sing, or enjoy­ing the hik­ing trails of Colorado.
6 I’m Sorry: I’m Saving It for a Special Occasion
Seth Brickner
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  • Doug Grim

    Seth–I didn't know you wrote blogs until I read your story about the lit­tle girl on the plane with you, which was very sweet…and full of your charm and humor :)

    I liked many of the ideas (solu­tions) you offer in the "take own­er­ship" of mis­takes. Well thought out and sin­cere ideas.

    Just wanted to say hello and wish you "safe travels"


  • Seth Brick­ner

    Hey Doug — yes, this is our blog, and I occa­sion­ally sub­mit an arti­cle. In addi­ition, some of our arti­cles are syn­di­cated to other sites like this one. Happy reading!

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