How Not to Say You’re Sorry through Customer Service

Amber Johnson Culture

Poor customer service can make you feel like you’re being taken for a ride.

Last week I took my family on a winter getaway to Florida, where we spent a good deal of time at one of the state’s many amusement parks. It was non-stop fun once we got inside the park’s gates. But outside the park’s gates was a bit of a mess.

It began a month earlier, when I’d called the park’s customer service line to purchase our tickets. I quickly received a confirmation email, and for about 10 minutes, all was well. Then I got someone else’s confirmation email. Then a second email, containing that guest’s personal contact information and the last four digits of his credit card. The situation went downhill from there.

If you’re a leader with an organization that provides customer service – and don’t we all? – then my experience is a good primer in how not to say you’re sorry when you make a service mistake. If you want your customers to believe your attempts to resolve the situation are insincere, here’s what you should do:

Mistake 1. Take a reasonable mistake, and make it worse. Repeatedly.

In the weeks after I purchased the tickets, I spent hours on the phone with the park’s customer service team, attempting to correct the error that had associated the two accounts. Each agent assured me that he had taken care of the situation, but inevitably I’d hang up the phone only to find another inaccurate email in my inbox. It culminated the night before we were to depart on the trip, when I discovered the last manager I’d spoken with had assigned his own email address to our account, rendering me unable to access our tickets online.

Mistakes are inevitable in business (though compromising a customer’s personal information is inexcusable, if you ask me). When you realize you’ve made one, resolve it. Immediately.

Mistake 2. Keep Your Service Impersonal. 

On my third call to the customer service team, I asked to speak with a manager. He, as had his colleagues before him, assured me he had resolved the situation. I asked him for his last name and direct line so I could contact him if I had any further problems. “We aren’t allowed to give that out, ma’am,” he told me. I persisted, but he insisted he simply couldn’t give me a way to reach him again.

I remembered this when the problem reoccurred: he’s lucky I didn’t have his direct line. Or his supervisor’s.

Do your customers have a way to speak with the same person every time? This builds trust and empowers employees to get the job done right.

Mistake 3. Don’t give up a thing. 

Two hours into the debacle, I asked the agent on the line if the park could compensate me for the time I had wasted due to their error. “We’re not able to do that, ma’am,” she said; and something about her tone made me feel like I’d asked an unreasonable, greedy question.

Eventually, a few more phone calls in, an agent offered me two lunch tickets: it seemed a little paltry, given that I’d purchased park tickets for four.

When you’ve made an error, go out of your way to be generous to your customers. Penny pinching looks cheap and unprofessional. Find a genuine and tangible way to express your apologies.

Mistake 4. Be a grump.

The situation was finally resolved with a personal letter from an agent, which I had to print (from my hotel room) and take to the customer service desk at the park’s entrance. Though the letter clearly outlined the situation, the agent at the window never offered an apology, or even a warm smile.

It’s hard to stay angry at someone you like. A welcoming and polite demeanor can go a long way toward earning forgiveness. Even a small gesture of contrition would have helped, in this situation.

In the end, we loved our time at the amusement park. Getting there, though, was another story. Customer service bookends your customers’ enjoyment of your product. Poor service damages your reputation and reflects poorly on your whole product. When a service error does occur, find a genuine way to apologize and make the situation right.

Amber Johnson is the CVDL’s corporate relations advisor and a non-profit and small business communications specialist. She writes about forgiveness, and other non-business topics, on her blog,

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