How to Say 'Sorry' to an Angry Customer

Bill Rosenthal


You just got word that a customer’s angry. The shipment was late or there’s a pricing error on the invoice. Or maybe there’s a quality glitch. Whatever the problem, you have to apologize.

Salespeople often dread having to say they're sorry. That’s a big mistake. They should welcome the opportunity to apologize because research has shown that a properly handled apology can increase the customer's loyalty. Correcting a grievance strengthens the relationship because it builds trust with the customer. Moving the customer from dissatisfied to completely satisfied raises loyalty between 30% and 50%. Customers like to talk about how their complaints were handled well, so there’s significant plus-side word of mouth as well. And word of mouth is the source of 20% to 75% of all new customers!

What’s most important is apologizing quickly. If you don’t, the customer's resentment may grow. The customer may think you don’t value the relationship or you're afraid to face up to the problem. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to apologize. Being quick to do it will immediately earn you points.

Learn whatever you can before you contact the customer. When was the shipment made? What exactly does the invoice say? Was the product checked for quality? Get all the facts about any other complaints the customer may have made. Though speed is important, avoid the temptation to apologize with an e-mail message. It's a very poor substitute for something that should be said either on the phone or during a visit. Once you’ve talked with the customer, though, you can follow up your conversation with an e-mail message. You can make it even more personal with a handwritten “snail mail” note.

When you contact the customer, listen carefully to what you hear. Resist the temptation to defend yourself until the customer has thoroughly explained. Make it clear that you’re listening by paraphrasing what you're hearing. If it’s a face-to-face meeting, show you’re listening by leaning forward, nodding and using facial gestures that express your concern. Take note of the customer's non-verbal cues as well. Look the customer in the eye. You'll make your apology much more credible that way. Express sympathy for any hurt or anxiety you caused. It isn't a sign of weakness to do this. It shows confidence and strength. If you don't understand completely, ask for clarification. Be careful not to hear the beginning of the customer's statement and immediately start thinking about what you'll say in reply. Listen carefully for the whole statement.

What the customer's saying might be altogether unfair and even insulting. Don't lose your equanimity, though. Try to defuse the situation by acknowledging that the customer is upset. Say something like, "I can see that this is upsetting to you" or "I recognize how frustrating this is for you." But don't say, "I understand how you feel…" That might sound facile to the customer and could prompt the classic comeback, "You have no idea how I feel."

Be clear and direct with your language. There’s a subtle difference between "I'm sorry" and "I apologize." The former acknowledges your feelings about what happened and it’s the right thing to say when you’re sympathizing with the other party. When asking for forgiveness, though, saying you’re sorry may not be enough. The other person might feel you're expressing regret without taking responsibility. Saying “I apologize” is better. If you say "Mistakes were made" you may sound like you're waffling. You’ll do better saying "I made a mistake.” Describe what steps you're taking to avoid repetition of the problem. Be careful, though, not to make any unrealistic promises. Give the customer an opportunity to ask questions about your explanation.

The customer might not immediately accept your apology, irrespective of how well you make it. Listen carefully and respectively to what's being said before you continue. As you respond don't use the word "wrong" because it's loaded and may heighten tension. Even using the word "but" might imply you're rejecting everything the other person said.

It may be advisable for you to offer a way to make amends. Think about this before making your apology so that you’re ready to offer restitution if asked. The customer's request might be unreasonable. Explain why it can't be met -- and offer another way to satisfy the customer instead.

As you go back and forth with the customer, here are some principles that form the basis of Communispond's thinking and teaching that will be useful to you:

  • Every point of view is reasonable to the person who holds it.
  • Persuasion does not result from argument or debate; it's a cooperative transaction.
  • Successful persuasion depends on the other person's trust in the persuader.
  • Persuasion never occurs when the message is unclear

Apologizing to an angry customer isn't easy. It's essential to apologize whenever you’ve treated a customer unfairly, though. Good salespeople are able to do it well. They use the apology as a way to earnestly make amends, turn adversity into advantage and demonstrate their sensitivity and fairness.

Bill Rosenthal is chief executive of Communispond, which provides consulting and skills training in all aspects of communications and sales. Visit for free access to webinars, articles, videocasts, audiocasts and e-newsletters.