Stop saying sorry all the time! For many of us, it’s a reflex, especially in customer service and support:
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
“I’m sorry for your wait.”
“I’m sorry you’re having this trouble.”
We say “sorry” to express empathy and reassure coworkers and customers. Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, tells the Wall Street Journal, “Everything we’re doing is on some level trying to show we’re a good person at the same time that we’re trying to accomplish something.”
But there is a body of research that indicates that apologies can be counterproductive. For those apologies to seem authentic, they must be paired with action. Otherwise, they’re perceived as empty virtue-signaling.
Read to the end, and we’ll share a special TextExpander Snippet that can help break you of the habit of reflexively saying “sorry.” You can play with some of those Snippets here to learn alternatives to saying sorry:
I see now that was not the best decision. May you be willing to provide feedback on how I can do this differently?
Do you have 10 minutes for a question?
Thank you for your patience with my reply.
Stop all apologies?
Jagdip Singh at Case Western Reserve analyzed 111 customer service videos thanks to a clever research method: the customer service desks at airports in the United States and United Kingdom were filmed for a reality show, and the participants signed waivers that let researchers freely study the interactions.
The Harvard Business Review explains what Singh’s team found:
The researchers coded employees’ words and phrases, evaluating whether the reps were engaged primarily in “relational work” (by being empathetic, apologizing, or trying to forge a personal connection) or in “problem-solving work” (by focusing on finding solutions). They also examined facial expressions to identify when employees were showing “positive affect”—for example, by smiling. The study reached two broad conclusions. Employees who expressed a great deal of empathy or tried to appear bright and cheerful did a poor job of satisfying customers, especially if this relational work extended beyond the first moments of the conversation. And customers cared less about the actual outcome (for example, whether a missing bag was quickly located) than about the process by which the employee tried to offer assistance. “It’s not about the solution—it’s about how you get there,” Singh says.
Singh’s team found that after the first seven seconds, apologies tended to backfire. His theory is that empathy and friendliness are perceived as counter-signals to competence.
To further confirm the theory, they performed a follow-up study in which participants listened to a scripted conversation between a customer and an airline customer service representative. Every resolution was negative, like a customer being told their bag wouldn’t arrive in time.
The participants were asked to rate each customer service interaction as if they had been the passenger:
The results showed that customer satisfaction was highest when the employee had offered a variety of solutions, such as several options for routing a bag to the customer’s final destination, even if the outcome wasn’t ideal.
In short, customers don’t want sympathy, they want solutions, even if they’re not perfect.
Scripted apologies ring hollow
If you reflexively apologize or read off an apology from a script, that apology likely isn’t genuine, and that is apt to further irritate an already irate customer.
“I wasn’t really that sorry. Why am I saying this thing? I don’t know,” freelance writer Louise Julig tells the Wall Street Journal.
Julig realized that her frequent apologies weren’t genuine, but were mere knee-jerk responses. Now she takes more care in evaluating whether she did something wrong. If she didn’t, she refrains from apologizing.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, told the Wall Street Journal that unnecessary apologies only make you appear weak while leaving the other party unsatisfied.
A poorly used apology can even be insulting. “It’s time to stop abusing the word ‘sorry’ and restore some credibility to the act of apologizing,” says Sean O’Meara, who co-authored The Apology Impulse: How Business Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It with Cary Cooper.
CX Today offers an example:
Such abuses include using phrases such as: “I’m sorry for any inconvenience,” or: “I’m sorry that you feel that way.” These are often worse than no apology at all, as they are lazy, impersonal, and sometimes a little rude.
Why? Because the first sentence seems to cast doubt on whether there was an inconvenience – thanks to the word “any” – while the second suggests that the customer’s emotional response is not justified. So, when apologizing, it is best to acknowledge the issue directly and show genuine empathy.
Just as important as avoiding empty apologies is avoiding the “non apology apology.” Examples include:
- “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
- “Mistakes were made.”
If you’re truly repentant, the best thing to do is solve the problem, which can smooth over the worst faux pas.
Don’t be sorry, be better
The second tenure of Steve Jobs as Apple’s CEO is a legend of the business world. Jobs took over a company mere days from bankruptcy and turned it into the world’s top company, alongside the world’s top product, the iPhone.
But he nearly blew it.
The iPhone 4 was a smash-hit product, but first adopters soon discovered a major flaw. Since part of the antenna was integrated into the iPhone’s body, customers could easily block the antenna with their hands and kill their cellular reception.
Jobs had a penchant for personally answering customer emails. He also wasn’t a fan of admitting fault. When customers began emailing him to inform him of the problem, his response was: “Just avoid holding it that way.”
To this day, “You’re holding it wrong” is an in-joke among techies.
“Antennagate” soon grew into a potentially costly headache. Consumer Reports declined to recommend the iPhone 4, and a recall was estimated to have cost $1.5 billion.
In a rare move, Jobs held a press conference to address the issue. Still avoiding an apology, he pointed out how competing products also had the same problem and shared statistics that indicated the problem was rare.
Jobs never once used the word “sorry.” Instead, he announced a fix: free iPhone cases for all iPhone 4 owners and a 30-day return period for any dissatisfied iPhone 4 buyer.
Jobs closed the press conference by saying, “We love our users. When we fall short, we try harder. And when we succeed, they reward us by staying with us.”
Lingering in-jokes aside, Apple made it right, avoided a costly recall, and turned critics into loyal customers. Today, iPhone loyalty exceeds 90%.
Gratitude as an alternative to apologies
We say “sorry” to be polite, but there are equally polite alternatives. Note above how Jobs never said “sorry” but praised Apple’s users.
Consider these alternatives to “sorry”:
- Instead of saying, “Sorry I’m late,” try, “Thank you for waiting.”
- Instead of “Sorry for taking your time,” say, “Thank you for your time.”
Note the differences:
- Instead of an empty apology, you’re conveying gratitude to the other party, which shows more respect.
- The gratitude phrasings don’t denigrate you or give away your power in a social situation.
- “Thanks” is much more positive than “sorry.”
Let’s talk about how TextExpander can help you forge more positive habits in your writing.
Stop saying sorry with TextExpander
The genius of TextExpander is that you can use any bit of text as your Snippet abbreviation. If there’s a certain word you overuse or misuse, you can create a Snippet to catch every time you use that word and even offer alternatives. For instance, if you’re in the habit of typing “ain’t”—which ain’t a word—you can use “ain’t” as an abbreviation and have it expand to “isn’t.”
We’ve created a Snippet so that every time you type “sorry,” it gives you alternative phrases:
- Just say “sorry”
- “Thank you for waiting.” instead of “Sorry I’m late.”
- “I see now that was not the best decision. May you be willing to provide feedback on how I can do this differently?” instead of “Sorry I made a mistake.”
- Another alternative to “Sorry I made a mistake”: “On that note,”
- “Thank you for your patience with my reply.” instead of “Sorry for my delay in replying.”
Note how these alternatives to sorry:
- Are oriented to gratitude and action, which prevents you from appearing weak
- But are still respectful
- Still communicate accountability
And the Snippet still gives you the option to say “sorry” when it’s a must. Make “sorry” count!
To use the Snippet, type “sorry” and then simply check the box for the text you want to insert. If you hit the spacebar and then Enter or Return, it will quickly insert “sorry.” It helps if you pause briefly after typing “sorry” to give the Fill-in window time to appear.
Feel free to make a copy of this Snippet for your personal TextExpander library and add whatever alternative phrases you like. Regardless, it will always make you think twice before typing “sorry,” which is the key.
You’ll never be sorry for trying TextExpander and learning how it can speed up your workflow and reduce drudgery. Find out for yourself with a 30-day free trial and discover what TextExpander can do for you and your team. When you’re ready, contact our sales team to supercharge your team. Team-based pricing starts as low as $8.33 per user per month.