How to Say Sorry: A Social Media Guide to Apologizing to Customers

Your customers are the backbone of your business. Without customers, there wouldn’t be anyone to enjoy your products and services and boost your reputation, and you wouldn’t turn a profit.

As a business owner, pleasing your customers should be your number one priority. So what happens when you mess up? Everyone makes mistakes. However, admitting you’re wrong can be a bitter pill to swallow when your livelihood relies on reputation.

The Importance of an Apology

Rather than pointing fingers, it’s crucial to react professionally and appropriately after a mistake happens. This means apologizing, helping the customer overcome their particular problem, and moving on.

With public apology letters becoming the new norm, however, a simple “I’m sorry” no longer cuts it. If your business is going to make the limelight because you made a mistake, you need to turn your worst moments into positive publicity.

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word: How to Apologize to Your Customers

Apologizing in the age of social media is easier said than done, but it boils down to three actionable steps:

  1. Be specific
  2. Show remorse, and
  3. Outline next steps

Let’s break these points down in detail, so you know how to make a comeback after a mistake.

Be Specific

Even the most prominent brands like Netflix and Apple have made mistakes. Taylor Swift famously declared a public boycott of Apple Music when they refused to pay artists for streaming music in a customer’s free trial period. Not long after a public apology was issued on Twitter, Swift herself starred in an Apple commercial.

Netflix also received criticism when they moved from a DVD platform to a streaming service, resulting in a separate billing that led to a 60% price hike. CEO Reed Hastings declared his apology in an open letter on the company’s blog. He not only apologized but also explained why the price change happened in the first place and admitted he was at fault.

In these situations, it was necessary for the brands to make public apologies to preserve their global reputations. However, apologizing to the masses also resulted in great publicity. Their apologies were so effective that some have argued that the “mistakes” were publicity stunts.

The common denominator? Both Netflix and Apple were specific about what they did wrong and offered solutions.

To offer a less successful example, Facebook recently spent $30 million on a television apology ad after app provider Cambridge Analytica collected data from millions of users without their permission.

Despite the substantial cost of the ad, commentators criticized Facebook for not taking full responsibility for past mistakes and only implicitly referring to their misdeeds. Facebook’s ad apologized with the passive sentence “But then something happened …” rather than mentioning the scandal explicitly.

The lesson? As human beings, we want brands to acknowledge our feelings of frustration, anger or disappointment. We don’t want a generic “I’m sorry to hear about your experience” email. We want to know that someone has read, understood and reacted to our complaint.

Show Remorse

As well as admitting fault, you also need to show genuine remorse. Whether you’re constructing a Tweet, an email or a private letter, resist the urge to undermine your apology with an ulterior motive.

Don’t tell your customer how much their “good review” means for your business. Don’t ask them to complete a survey to win a voucher. The last thing you should be doing is asking them to do anything. Be specific. Apologize for your mistake and check how genuine you sound. If you’re asking a customer you have wronged to do something that benefits your business; the answer is “not very.”

Much as it’s tempting, refrain from giving an excuse for your mistake. Excuses dilute the strength of your apology and shift the focus away from the needs of your customer. It’s not about saving face; it’s about making it up to the customer.

“A stiff apology is a second insult,” Gilbert K. Chesterton.

Outline Next Steps

While your apology is important, merely saying “sorry” isn’t enough to win back a wronged customer. Not only does the person want to know you’ve acknowledged what you did wrong and that you’re genuinely sorry, but they also want to know it won’t happen again.

Again, be specific about how you’re going to prevent this particular problem from occurring again in the future. Don’t just say “we’ve taken your comments on board.” Instead, explain the process you’re going to take to address the issue directly. For example, if a customer’s shipment got lost or arrived late, you could say that you’ve launched an investigation with the delivery company or switched couriers.

Of course, you should also take action for the benefit of a customer, such as giving them a refund or offering them a voucher or freebie.

Backing up your apology with action could be the difference between a returning customer and a negative online review of your business. Think customer reviews don’t matter? According to a 2017 study, nearly 95% of shoppers read online reviews before making a purchase.

Why You Need to Say Sorry, Even When It’s Not Your Fault

A study by the Journal of Management shows that customers are more likely to continue using a business or service that apologizes after it has made a mistake.

In all walks of life, apologizing is a skill that rebuilds reputations and restores trust. However, to be effective, an apology must be sincere and not be focused on who is right and who is wrong. Crafting an effective, sincere apology can be difficult, especially when you don’t believe you were at fault. However, you should never point the finger back at the customer.

Legal considerations also pose a challenge. Company lawyers will sometimes argue against apologizing, believing an apology can admit fault and result in a legal dispute. If you’re in doubt about the legal ramifications of your apology, you should always consult a corporate lawyer before you take action.

To Conclude

When something goes wrong in business, it’s tempting to avert blame to try to preserve your reputation. However, apologizing can undo the damage caused and help repair your business relationships.

All businesses mess up. The sooner you acknowledge that, the easier apologizing will be. The key is to know how to say sorry to the people who matter most to your business – your customers – and mean it.

Timothy Kelly

Timothy Kelly

Chief Editor at SmallbizStar
Tim has been a writer for over 20 years covering financial markets and small business.

In addition to writing about the financial markets, Mr. Kelly writes extensively about digital marketing and SEO.

Mr. Kelly attended Boston College where he studied English Literature and Economics, and also attended the University of Siena, Italy where he studied studio art.

Mr. Kelly has been a decades-long community volunteer in his hometown of Long Island where he established the community assistance foundation, Kelly's Heroes. He has also been a coach of Youth Lacrosse for over 10 years. Prior to volunteering in youth sports, Mr. Kelly was involved in the Inner City Scholarship program administered by the Archdiocese of New York.

Before creating ForexTV, Mr, Kelly was Sr. VP Global Marketing for Bridge Information Systems, the world’s second largest financial market data vendor. Prior to Bridge, Mr. Kelly was a team leader of Media at Bloomberg Financial Markets, where he created Bloomberg Personal Magazine.

Contact Tim tim.kelly@smallbizstar.com
Timothy Kelly

Timothy Kelly

Tim has been a writer for over 20 years covering financial markets and small business. In addition to writing about the financial markets, Mr. Kelly writes extensively about digital marketing and SEO. Mr. Kelly attended Boston College where he studied English Literature and Economics, and also attended the University of Siena, Italy where he studied studio art. Mr. Kelly has been a decades-long community volunteer in his hometown of Long Island where he established the community assistance foundation, Kelly's Heroes. He has also been a coach of Youth Lacrosse for over 10 years. Prior to volunteering in youth sports, Mr. Kelly was involved in the Inner City Scholarship program administered by the Archdiocese of New York. Before creating ForexTV, Mr, Kelly was Sr. VP Global Marketing for Bridge Information Systems, the world’s second largest financial market data vendor. Prior to Bridge, Mr. Kelly was a team leader of Media at Bloomberg Financial Markets, where he created Bloomberg Personal Magazine. Contact Tim tim.kelly@smallbizstar.com