5 times customers should say “sorry”

Ever apologized to a business? If you said “never,” then maybe you don’t have kids.

At some point, each of my children has slipped a candy bar or lollipop — strategically stocked at kid-level in the checkout area — into their pockets without first informing Mom or Dad. When we discovered the transgression, we raced back to the store, paid for the item and apologized. Profusely.

Then we gave the kids a stern lecture about paying for merchandise before leaving the store. We haven’t had any relapses, but then again, the teen years are just around the corner. Fingers crossed.

I hear a lot of apologies in my line of work. But as a consumer advocate, they almost always go one way: the company apologizes to a customer for a problem, actual or perceived. Sometimes, the tables should be turned.

When you’ve taken something you shouldn’t.
Obviously, if you’ve left the store with merchandise — even inadvertently — you should immediately make amends. Return the product and offer your apologies. Businesses refer to this as “shrinkage,” which is a kind way of saying they’re getting ripped off by their own customers. It’s a $119-billion a year problem globally, according to the latest statistics, so you can be sure the business takes its disappearing inventory very seriously. (By the way, if you’re not sure if it’s stealing, it probably is.)

When you’ve damaged a company’s reputation.
It’s easier than ever to irreparably damage a company’s good name online. Just a few weeks ago, a disgruntled airline passenger paid Twitter to promote a damaging message about the company after it lost his father’s luggage. But what happens when it isn’t the company’s fault, and it stands accused of doing something it hasn’t? (The airline found the missing luggage and returned it, along with an apology.) What if someone else were to blame? Isn’t the business entitled to an apology? Absolutely.

When you’ve damaged store merchandise.
You know the old saying, “If you break it, you pay for it.” Well, it should be common sense, but I’ve seen customers walk away from a display after knocking merchandise to the ground, offering a “not-my-problem” shrug. Seriously, this isn’t something an advice columnist should have to tell you, but keep reading and I’ll share why this is so important.

When you’ve been rude.
It’s amazing how many people feel as if they are entitled to more than a simple apology when an employee has been a little short with them. But they don’t give a second thought to berating an employee (after all, isn’t the customer “always right”?). One of the keys to getting better service is realizing that the employees are people, too, and want to be treated like people, not customer service ‘bots. So when you cut loose on someone, take a deep breath and apologize. There’s no reason to leave your manners at home — ever.

When you’ve asked for too much.
This happens more often than you’d think. Consumers often harbor unrealistically high expectations, and when they’re not met, they drag law enforcement, regulators, management — and eventually, me — into the argument, demanding more and more before they’re happy. If at any point along the way they take the time to listen to anyone who tells them the product is out of warranty or that they’re expecting something it never promised, then these impossible-to-please customers ought to say they’re sorry. After all, they just wasted the company’s valuable time.

And here’s why this matters: When enough customers steal or break merchandise, badmouth the company and make ridiculous demands, and they don’t make amends, then it poisons the already strained relationship between customers and companies.

Businesses aren’t dumb. They’ll tighten their return policies, ask their lawyers to draw up even more onerous terms and conditions for their customers, and they’ll authorize their employees to hang up on you when you’re upset and you call to complain, in order to protect them from possible abuse.

Isn’t an apology the easier way to go?

Have you ever apologized to a business?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Regina Litman

    Regarding apologizing to a business – When I was at that hotel with the $12.95 per night per device computer connection charge (wi-fi or wired), I got into an argument with a Guest Services person who answered my phone call from my room phone because I had confused my understanding that there’d be free wi-fi with another hotel where we had stayed earlier. I did get fairly heated in my arguing. Once I realized that I had gotten this place confused with the other one, I felt quite contrite. To clear my conscience, I stopped by the front desk a day or so later where I apologized to someone other than the person I had spoken to on the phone.

  • sirwired

    – When you were wrong and wasted time insisting you were right.

    – When you repeat the counter-productive (and wrong) phrase: The Customer is Always Right. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t.

  • shannonfla

    My dad accidentally stole a tasseled room key from a lovely boutique before boutique was cool hotel in Paris. We called them and returned it at our expense once back on USA.

  • omgstfualready

    I chewed out a clerk at my local taxing authority based upon information all my neighbors told me on what appeared to be a big mistake (close to $7k of taxes due without any warning). She calmly explained the issue and it was not an error. I emailed her apologizing and she accepted it. I then replied thanking her for doing so since I’m not so sure I’d have been so willing to forgive. I guess when you work in a tax office you develop thick skin.

  • Kairho

    Just last year I purchased 10 decorative $10 items from a DIY store. I put them on the counter, told the cashier “ten” to save counting time, paid and left. They were for a minor construction project at home and when I finished the work I had one item left over! Counting showed that I had an extra, obviously a miscount when putting them into the cart at HD.

    The following week I brought it back and profusely apologized. What happened next was weird: the returns cashier said “keep it.” Huh? She said that in the few weeks between purchasing and return they had done a store inventory and somehow paying out on such a return would screw up their bookkeeping! I protested to no avail.

    But I had the last laugh because I needed to purchase a few other items and in that process I slipped the stolen item back into its place. Now it will screw up their inventory next year!

  • M Hanley

    I’m not sure I see the problem with the guy promoting a tweet complaining about BA losing his dad’s bag. Where’s the part where (as you say) “it isn’t the company’s fault, and it stands accused of doing something it hasn’t?”

    They had lost it, then when the tweet was promoted, he was shortly reunited with said bag. Seems like a good way to cut through the red tape when the airlines are being dense, slow or unresponsive.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Nothing wrong with it at all. But if it had turned out that it wasn’t BA’s fault, wouldn’t he have owed it an apology?

  • M Hanley

    Ahh, sorry. Misunderstood you and thought you were implying he was in the wrong.

    To answer the question, I believe he should have owed an apology. The question is, would he be remiss to not pay to promote said apology?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    In fairness, if he did apologize, he probably should have also promoted it. But I doubt that would happen.

  • Mark Carrara

    To me shrinkage as always meant employee theft or possibly both employee and unknown.

  • AH

    i’ve had a few occasions where i’ve called “customer service” and been disconnected, misdirected, etc. before finally being able to speak to someone who could help me. needless to say, those problems (on top of the original reason for my call) had not put me in the best of moods…and i started off being rather snippy. then once the person (whose name i always make a point of getting) began to actually address the problem, i calmed down and apologized (using the person’s name) for having been rude. they always appreciate it, i think i got better service from having done so, and the conversation has always concluded on a friendly note.

  • MarkKelling

    Shrink is any loss of sellable merchandise so that it can’t be sold. This includes employee theft, customer theft, damage, spoilage, improperly tagged, vendor delivery of product other than what was invoiced, and so on.

  • http://www.parafriv.net/ Para Friv

    It’s easy to hurt someone you love, who loves you, who are good friends, but really hard to say sorry and get her wrong. It’s what the article thank you for sharing, it gave me a meaningful thoughts.

  • pietrocrazy

    I used work in customer service, and I’ve had this happen to me (that someone will yell at me after getting bad service from another person). It’s not uncommon for people to apologize, and it always made my day. I never blamed people for getting angry (we had a pretty ridiculous system), but it’s hard getting yelled at all the time for things that aren’t your fault and over which you have no control.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    It’s also good for the soul to be fair. Many years ago, at a bookstore chain now out of business, my younger brother got change for a 20, when he paid with a 10. He told me after we’d walked out, but while we were still in the car. I marched him back, he explained the error, and they were so appreciative, they actually gave him a free book.

  • AH

    that was exactly why i apologized. the rep to whom i was talking wasn’t responsible for the disconnects or the transfers to the wrong department, and was honestly trying to help.
    i’ve even asked to be transferred to a supervisor to compliment a customer svc rep who has really gone out of of his/her way to help and solve a problem. (actually had one supervisor tell me that the rep would probably get a bonus because of my compliments!) now that really made me feel good that i’d apologized and we’d worked together to resolve the problem!

    btw, did you work for verizon?

  • JewelEyed

    I purchased an item of clothing on clearance at an extreme discount at one point and returned home to find the ink tag still in it. This happens on occasion, so at my next available opportunity, I returned to have the tag removed. It turns out that despite the fact that the cashier handled the item, it was not actually added to the total and paid for. I showed them my receipt from that day, only to realize the item was not on there. I did get a strange look until I said “I have no idea how that happened, she had it all in her hands. Well, I definitely want it if I came all the way out here to get the tag off, can you just ring me up for it now?” I was a little upset that I did get a tone and a look at first that made it seem like they thought I had stolen it. It wasn’t actually my fault, but I did understand that somehow a mistake had been made and rather than arguing I should have it free as it wasn’t my fault, I merely asked for the opportunity to purchase it (which I had obviously meant to do all along).

  • JewelEyed

    I have been snippy with customer service a time or two because I was so frustrated over previous attempts to get help, but I’ve always apologized sincerely afterward, and made it clear that I understand it wasn’t their fault.

  • bayareascott

    “Accidentally stole?”

  • shannonfla

    Stole because he took it without permission or compensation. Accidental because key was in his jacket pocket and he didn’t realize it until we went to London

  • bayareascott

    That’s just an accident. Good of you to return it though.

  • pauletteb

    Your “apology” would have been more sincere had you made it as soon as you realized your error . . . and to the person you unfairly berated.