Improve Relationships by Never Saying Sorry

typewriter text I'm not sorry

Improve Relationships by Never Saying Sorry

As a customer, how do you feel when a business messes up and they say sorry? It’s okay, right? ‘At least they were aware of their mistake’, you may think.  Does it make you feel good though? Probably not.

When people know they’ve made a mistake, or if a customer brings one to their attention, many believe they should say sorry, just like how we did when we were being raised by our parents. This is wrong!

In business it can be important to say you’re sorry (I know, I lied in the headline – but I’m not sorry. Keep reading anyway), but those times are rare. Let’s dive in to how much saying sorry sucks for you and your customer and what you can do to change it…

Sorry is a Feeling

First off, sorry is a feeling. It’s not a good feeling – it doesn’t even come close to feeling good. Personally, I hate feeling sorry. Not only that, but I hate when someone feels sorry for me too. I can’t think of a situation in business or otherwise where someone said sorry to me and I felt great about it. Even when you’re right and someone, particularly in a business context, says sorry it still leaves the situation flat.

Sorry isn’t a problem solver. “Sorry I couldn’t meet our shipping deadline.” ” I missed our meeting, sorry.” Sorry, sorry, sorry. Blech! I don’t know about you, but I really don’t have much time for sorry. I need sorry to get off its butt and fix the mistake.

Want to create victims? Use “sorry”. Depending on how someone says they’re sorry, that could be either the customer or the business. Either way, someone becomes a victim and is on the wrong end of a power imbalance. Didn’t get the product you ordered? Sorry, you’re a victim. Sorry I couldn’t ship the product to you on time… I was too busy being a victim.

The good news is this can all be avoided.

The power of the apology

Saying sorry is not the same as an apology. In terms of customer service, they’re worlds apart.

In my experience, an apology vs. saying sorry can be the difference between keeping a long term customer and having them walk out the door. I like to keep my long term customers.

Apologizing acknowledges and takes responsibility for your mistake. You will be perceived as being more transparent and understanding of the issue than saying sorry.*

  • Apologizing is an action, not a feeling. A customer who is coming to you because you’ve messed up wants action. Feelings are secondary.
  • An apology implies you are empowered to solve the problem far more than being sorry does
  • Apologizing keeps the power balance in the customer / business relationship equal. There are no victims. It’s a business arrangement and it is going to get fixed and everyone is going to move forward.

Let’s look at a super simple example… you’re late for a meeting with a client. What next?

You could say, “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was a nightmare”. Clearly your tardiness is the fault of the traffic, right?! In fact, you’re both victims to the traffic. No one feels good about it. No one wants to be a victim.

Contrast this with, “I apologize for being late.” – now, because of the shift in mentality due to apologizing rather than saying sorry, are you as likely to blame traffic, or take responsibility for your actions? I know I’d be more inclined to conclude with “I know your time is valuable, I will allow more time for traffic next time.” The apology shows that you are accountable and that you will take action to prevent the mistake from happening again. The apology mindset is an accountable mindset. The sorry mindset is a victim mindset.

Positivity of Apology

Simply put, an apology is far more positive and accountable than saying sorry. I avoid saying sorry whenever I can, particularly with my customers.

However, as I mentioned earlier, there are some important times where saying sorry can be the right thing to do. Namely if you know you’ve hurt someone’s feelings, or they are going through a rough time and you are trying to show empathy. We’re still human after all. 

I like to think of the difference in terms of body language. Saying sorry is like shrugging your shoulders. An apology is eye contact and a firm handshake. As a customer, I know which one I’d rather receive.

*Save for the “I apologize if my [ X action] caused [ Y feeling].” Those are generally pretty empty gestures used by people when they aren’t interested in taking accountability for their actions.