First, I am not presumptuous enough to tell anyone how to apologize, or think I am in any way an expert at it. I am just pretty good at it, so I thought I would share what I have learned.
So this is how I apologize – your mileage may vary.
1. Listen. And by that I do not mean, “let the customer vent”. I mean listen. Listening is not passive. Listening is active, and you should be contributing back to the conversation even as you listen. You should be seeking clarifications at this point. Do not get defensive.
2. Repeat what you think you heard and make sure you and the customer agree with the basic issues. This is actually a great opportunity to dig deeper and find out what that one really big pain point is (and in my experience, it is almost always one major issue, even if they have a laundry list of issues to start with). Listen and engage – don’t just listen – they will think you are blowing them off – or that you just get paid to listen. Interact.
2a – Do correct any factual mistakes or assumptions your customer has made at this point. But do it in a methodical and no-nonsense, non-threatening way. Make that quick and then focus on the main issue.
3. Know what you are talking about. Know your product better than your customer does. Make sure you know the pain points. It makes all the difference.
4. Empathy – people often mistake this as “feeling sorry for”. It is NOT. Empathy is more like, “been there, done that”. People who raised children alone are empathetic to each other. Those who haven’t often “sympathize”. Being sympathetic is nowhere near as effective as establishing that connection with the customer. Empathizing is a shared pain point – one the customer knows you have also experienced – because you really have, and you can share thier pain because you have honestly felt it.
5. Follow up. No painful customer conversation should ever end with one conversation. Call them again in a week. Ask if they are doing any better – or if you are doing any better.
6. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver, but deliver what you promise.
7. Take their side when you should. Don’t be afraid to agree with your customer if they say, “this feature sucks”. If it sucks, it sucks. And if it truly sucks and you try to pretend it does not – you have lost.
8. Invite the customer in. Tell them how to send suggestions for improvement – offer to call them every couple weeks to get feedback. Add them to your advisory board. Customers that are so passionate about your product that they get angry when you fail them are the best customers to have advising you. They care enough to let you know they care. And tell you what they think, and what they need.
9. Be human. This is vastly underestimated in most of the reading I have done on this topic. If you have a script for dealing with upset customers then you fail.
10. Don’t offer to credit or “pay” your customer anything until you get through most of these steps. Customers that are passionate about your product but just pissed about a current issue, or even a longtime flaw will just get offended. Do offer reparations after the fact if that makes sense. But if a refund is your opening move you are destined to fail quickly.
So those are ten quick points – and they don’t apply to everyone, I know. I wasn’t trying to write a rule book – just trying to explain how I apologize.
I listen actively, with engagement. Make sure I really understand the important issues. I know the product so well that I probably know their pain point as well as they do. So I can empathize – without seeming phony. I don’t let it stop at one conversation and I share all my personal contact info, including my home phone number. But I DO make it clear that I am not support – I am more of a lifeline. I do not want to be the first person they call. So I set boundaries.
I treat people well. Even if they are angry at me/my employer. Everyone is allowed some emotional and sometimes even irrational moments. I have my share of those.
I don’t try to pay to make the problem go away. I try to make the problem go away and then use credits/refunds as more of a parting hug.
I also make myself available – I am easy for customers to find. And I want to be found. I want to try and make someone happy. That’s my job – why would I hide from it.