When companies apologize for miniscule mistakes, they risk angering customers by drawing attention to what would have otherwise been a nonissue
When customers noted an offensive pattern on a line of H&M socks in 2018, the company bungled its chance at an apology. To be fair, the controversy was a bit of a surprise: The socks depicted a Lego figurine wearing a construction hat and holding a jackhammer, and the pattern made by the tool, when turned upside down, somewhat resembled the Arabic word for “Allah.” When the image made the rounds online, the socks were pulled from shelves and a spokesperson for H&M released a statement saying that the symbol was “entirely coincidental” and apologized “if the motif has offended anyone.” Not only did this apology fail to claim responsibility—H&M was only sorry because people were angry—some wondered if the statement was drawing attention to what would have likely been a nonissue.
This kind of mistake falls under the category of what Mason Jenkins, assistant professor of marketing at Northeastern University, calls an “ambiguous failure”—an error a customer wouldn’t notice and therefore not expect an apology for. And new research by Jenkins and his team demonstrates how apologizing for an ambiguous failure only serves to enrage otherwise tame customers.
In the study, the team partnered with an unnamed Grubhub competitor and surveyed the reactions of about 3,000 customers who had received deliveries that were as much as 15 minutes late. Some of those customers were issued a proactive apology before they had a chance to complain, while the others received nothing (other than their food, of course). An immediate post-purchase survey noted lower levels of satisfaction, trust and likelihood of a recommendation across the apology group, compared to the non-apology cohort. And 90 days later, those who received an apology were less likely to reorder from the same restaurant.
“What apologies are doing is influencing what aspects of the experience that [customers are] more likely to remember,” Jenkins says.
This phenomenon can be generalized beyond food delivery services and touches every company promising a core service to its customers. Examples abound: Online banking should be executed smoothly and without errors, and apparel companies shouldn’t sell anything that would disintegrate when laundered—the trick is to determine whether the error is egregious enough for a proactive apology or if the act of addressing the mistake does more harm than good.
Take a Brief Pause
Start by answering the biggest question first: What is necessitating the possible apology?
Negligent service, accounting errors or harassment claims are unambiguous reasons to be sorry and issue an apology. Tamara Rodman, EVP of employee experience at Edelman, says that companies should evaluate the gravity of the error by hypothesizing how it would be viewed by a general consumer base. She says companies should consider whether the mistake was within their control, and allow for potential caveats for everything else.
“If it’s truly, totally ownable by the company, just acknowledge it,” Rodman says.
Mike Schaffer, SVP of digital corporate reputation at Edelman, urges companies to bear in mind that the reason for an apology may have more to do with the customer than the encounter itself. “A lot of customers will leave negative feedback or demand an apology because they don’t feel that they’re being heard,” he says. “If you’re able to show that you hear them and you have empathy for what they’re going through, even if it’s not your direct fault, that shows that you’re listening and you’re caring. And that’s a great way to build strong relationships with your customers.”
Let Data Dictate the Rest
The next step is determining how egregious the error was. The threshold at which an apology is warranted needs to remain the same across multiple customers for the sake of consistent word-of-mouth. Companies must be ready with an apology should the situation warrant one, and a case-by-case policy isn’t sustainable.
Modern analytics remove much of the guesswork from gauging the precise moment when a customer notices a mistake and begins seeking an apology. Check for patterns in your data: Perhaps customers reach out after two bad service experiences and demand an apology, but one bad experience seems to sail under the radar. Or maybe customers rarely complain when food orders arrive 25 minutes late but start lighting up the switchboards at half an hour. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all—understand … your gating function,” Rodman says.
Pick the Proper Medium
Apologies take many forms, be they delivered in person, over email or during a nationally televised address.
“You want the apology to be as personal as the situation dictates,” Schaffer says. “If there was a massive outage of an airline’s computer system, there is no expectation that you’re going to call everyone in your database. That’s where social media posts should suffice. But if there was an error in one person’s reservation that made them 10 hours late to their destination, you could take that to an email. People want to feel apologized to personally when they’ve been wronged individually.”
Because of its exorbitant reach, Twitter is a prime outlet for mass apologies. Some companies have set up separate accounts to address service outages and other errors; Verizon, for example, owns both @verizon and @verizonsupport, the latter of which handles most of its apologies. But Jenkins says that by posting apologies under their main Twitter handle, companies are viewed as more transparent and garner favorable word-of-mouth.
Regardless of where this apology appears, be sure it’s issued as soon as possible to minimize how long the incident stays with customers. “This minimizes the chance of someone forgetting that they might have been remotely inconvenienced and then having it be redrawn up for them,” Rodman says. “The potential fallout from an apology is far mitigated the quicker you make it.”
As far as language goes, the only requirement across the board is to use the word “sorry.” Almost anything else is fair game, but Schaffer cautions against the use of one word in particular.
“One of the things that has always been a pet peeve of mine about corporate apologies is the word ‘if,’” he says. “When an apology says, ‘We are sorry if you feel this way,’ or ‘We are sorry if we inconvenienced you,’ that puts the responsibility back on the person who was already materially or perceptually wronged. … You should be sorry regardless. Whereas if the apology was, ‘This happened, we are sorry,’ full stop, that really takes accountability for the action.”
Part of that accountability includes eliminating any doubt that a similar incident will ever occur again. “Instead of being recovery-focused, communicate and ensure that the customer’s next experience is going to be unambiguously positive,” Jenkins says. “[It’s] less defensive, more offensive.”